Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Odd Ones Out Are Not Like the Others

Posted by Neal on July 8, 2009

I see an odd one out!One Sunday morning not long ago, I was making breakfast for everyone. The grits were almost ready to dish up, but before I did that, I had to heat up the water for Doug’s instant oatmeal, because he doesn’t like grits! And after I’d cut wedges of watermelon my wife and Doug and me, I got out a banana for Adam, because for some reason he didn’t want any watermelon that morning. Then I got juice for Doug and Adam and myself; I didn’t have to get any for my wife, because she was just going to keep drinking the Diet Coke she’d popped open. So finally all the different combinations of food and drink were on the table, and we sat down to eat. That’s when Adam observed:

“Doug’s the odd one out because he’s having oatmeal.”

Odd one out is a term we picked up from the book Grey Rabbit’s Odd One Out, by Alan Baker. In it, Grey Rabbit is looking for some object that’s hidden in the mess in his room, so he starts cleaning it by category; for example, he gathers up all the balls. But for every category, GR finds that there’s one item that doesn’t belong, which he then uses as the seed for his next category of things to gather. The one that doesn’t belong is referred to as the odd one out. I adopted the term because (I realized) I hadn’t really had a word for the concept until then. The closest thing I had was not a noun, but the sentence One of these things is not like the others, copped from the classic Sesame Street bits, and spoken with Gen-X irony and self-awareness. (I looked on YouTube and on reader Ingeborg Norden’s Sesame Street fan blog for a video clip to show you, but without success.) In fact, this phrasing is so entrenched in some of my peers’ memory that it comes out even when it doesn’t quite make sense. My sister-in-law was talking about how strict her mother-in-law would be with her grandchildren’s sugar consumption. After one meal, she had offered them a choice for dessert: A piece of cake, or … a Diet Coke.

“A piece of cake or a Diet Coke!?” my sister-in-law repeated for us. “One of these things is not like the other!”

Uh, yeah. And the other of these things is not like the one. That is to say, each of these things is not like the other. But anyway, where was I? Right, so we’ve been using the phrase odd one out for several years now, and sometimes make a game out of pointing out why each of us is an odd one out. Adam continued:

“Mom’s the odd one out because she’s having a Diet Coke. I’m the odd one out because I’m not having any watermelon. And Dad’s the odd one out because he’s the only one who’s not an odd one out.”

This makes three odd one outs!“Oh, no, you don’t!” I objected. “No second-order odd one outs allowed! Only first-order odd one outs!”

A pause. Then: “Hey, wait, is it odd one outs or odd ones out? What do you think, boys?”

Doug: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Well, think, man, think! This is important!”

Doug: “OK, I guess I’d say odd one outs.”

The wife: “I’d say odd ones out.

Adam refused to offer an opinion.

So which was it? The edge inflection of odd one outs, indicating a more word-like status for the term? Or the head inflection of odd ones out, indicating a more phrase-like status? In CoCA, there are no instances of the word-like odd one outs, and only one instance of the phrase-like odd ones out:

In the family Coccinellidae, the ladybugs of nursery-rhyme fame, the odd ones out are members of the genus Epilachna.

Or is that odd ones out?A Google search produces a mere 300 hits for odd one outs, compared to more than 15,000 for odd ones out. On Google Books, it’s less than a dozen for odd one outs (with the earliest from 1994), versus about 600 for odd ones out. On Google Groups, 15 hits for odd one outs; about 1400 for odd ones out. So it looks like odd ones out is the clear winner.

But for me, apparently, odd one out is a (compound) word rather than a phrase, forming its plural with an -s on the end. Or is it? As I say them both to myself right now, odd ones out does sound better than odd one outs. However, when I add the modifier first-order, a flip-flop occurs: first-order odd one outs sounds better than first-order odd ones out. What’s up with that?

Odd One OutI have an idea. First, let’s look at the diagram of the singular odd one out on the left. I haven’t grouped odd and one together under one node, and then attached out; nor have I grouped one and out together under one node and then attached odd. Neither grouping seems to make sense to me; we’re not talking about odd ones that are out, or out ones that are odd. I’d say that the best analysis was one that took odd … out as a discontinuous adjective that modifies a noun stuck in the middle (though the only nouns that are currently used to fill in the hole are one and man). Discontinuous adjectives do exist; for example, easy … to [VERB]. There’s not really a good way to represent that in one of these syntactic tree diagrams, so I’m just putting all three words on the same level, underneath the node labeled Nom (short for Nominal, which is bigger than a noun, but smaller than a noun phrase).

Now let’s look at the diagram for first-order odd ones out below and left. Odd ones out is a chunk, modified by the adjective first-order. This grouping makes it clear that this phrase is referring to some odd ones out, and that first-order is telling what kind of odd ones out we mean. However, first-order odd ones out could also be parsed as in the diagram below and to the right. Here, first-order modifies just odd ones, leaving out all by itself. The meaning associated with this structure would be first-order odd ones that are out. What’s a first-order odd one, I find myself asking. And out? What are they out of? So actually, I guess I can’t really parse first-order odd ones out this way, at least not completely. But for me, enough of the parse goes through to cause trouble.Odd ones out of the first orderOdd ones of the first order ... and they're out?

But if I put the plural -s after out, then odd one out is unquestionably frozen into a chunk, and there is no chance of misconstruing what first-order associates with, as shown in the diagram below.Odd-one-outs of the first order

This analysis should hold true for any adjective modifying odd {ones out, one outs}. So what do you think? Do you prefer odd ones out or odd one outs, and does your preference change when you put in an adjective?

As for me, meanwhile, I’m imagining what a third-order odd one out would be. It would be the only person who has never been the second-order odd one out in all the times we’ve played our game; someone who could always be classified as odd one out without resorting to “because he’s the only one who isn’t an odd one out.” Yeah, I’m going to blow the kids’ minds the next time they try to lay a second-order odd one out on me!

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12 Responses to “Odd Ones Out Are Not Like the Others”

  1. Ran said

    My intuitions match yours: “odd ones out” is better than “odd one outs”, but “first-order odd one outs” is better than “first-order odd ones out”. That said, “first-order odd one out” is perhaps atypical in that “first-order” does not really predicate anything of the referent (you can’t say, say, “she’s a first-order person who is an odd one out”); rather, it modifies the meaning of “odd one out” itself. I find that “They’re the only odd ones out” (= “They’re the only people who are odd ones out”) sounds better to me than “They’re the only odd one outs.” At least, I think so. It’s so hard to hold onto these judgments for more than a second!

  2. matt said

    i feel like the phrase only exists because there isn’t really a word (or a good one) for that notion in english. in that sense, i would treat the “odd one out” as a noun and make it “odd one out”s even though it doesn’t sound as good. it seems like people want to make it “odd ones out” for grammatical reasons. if there were such a word X that meant exactly “odd one out”, you wouldn’t place an s in the middle of it ever.

  3. The Ridger said

    How about with “man”? That is, is it “second-order odd men out” or “second-order odd man outs”?

    • Neal said

      Good question. In CoCA, there are two hits for “odd men out”, zero for “odd man outs”. In Google Groups, about 1100 for “odd men out”, two for “odd man outs”. None that I inspected were modified by adjectives.

  4. There are roughly the same number of ‘odd ones out’ and ‘odd one outs’ on a Google UK search, but the ‘odd ones out’ usually come from newspapers etc, while the ‘odd one outs’ are more likely to be from forums, book reviews etc.

    I don’t see a problem with odd ones out. We say mothers-in-law (not mother-in-laws), passers-by (not passer-bys) and runners-up (not runner-ups).

    • Neal said

      I don’t see a problem with odd ones out, either. There are certainly plenty of precedents for this kind of internal pluralization, like the ones you mention. And indeed, as soon as I said odd one outs, it occurred to me that I could also have said odd ones out, which triggered the whole discussion.

  5. Sagan said

    Thanks for posing this question! It’s a tricky one. I prefer the way that “odd ones out” sounds, but I see your point with why “odd one outs” sometimes makes more sense.

    Would a fourth order odd one out be the first time a third order odd one out becomes the second order odd one out?

    – Sagan

  6. Ellen K. said

    I think number of hits for “odd ones out” versus “odd one outs” isn’t really relevant to this particular usage.

    Say there was a group of 30, all alike except for two. Those two would be the odd ones out. That’s how I would say it.

    But it different saying “No second-order odd one outs allowed! Only first-order odd one outs!”

    Here, the “odd one out” refers to the use of the phrase odd one out. And as such, I personally would say “odd one outs”.

  7. Shatimi said

    What software do you utilize to create such word-splitting diagrams? Thanks in advance.

  8. Neal said

    It’s the online syntax tree drawer, which you can click to in the Resources section in the right margin.

  9. yewenyi said

    I think it is to do with the assumed words. That is it is not odd-one-out but really odd-one out-of-the-group. That is why odd-ones makes sense.

  10. Thryn said

    Is there really no one word synonym indicative of this concept?

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