‘On the one hand’ vs. ‘on one hand’ in English

by Jakub Marian
Did you know that “iron” is pronounced as “I earn”, not as “I Ron”? Learn more about the most common pronunci­ation mistakes in English (PDF version).

Actually, both expressions are considered correct, but “on the one hand … on the other hand …” is preferred by many dictionaries while “on one hand … on the other hand” is listed as an alternative form. However, intuitively, the first “the” seems illogical, because you are just referring to one of your hands. You wouldn’t say, for example, “I wore a glove on the one hand and nothing on the other”, unless you were waving one of your hands while saying so, and you wanted to underline the fact that this had been the hand with a glove.

I’ve read an explanation the first “the” originates really in gesticulation using one hand while telling the phrase. I was interested whether other languages follow the same pattern, so here comes a little table:

LanguageOriginal phraseTranslationComment
GermanAuf der einen Seite … auf der anderen seiteOn the one side … on the other sideThis expression copies the structure of the much less used English expression “on one side … on the other side”, but, unlike English, it uses the definite article, as in “on the one hand …”.
FrenchD’un côté … d’un autre côté …At one/a side … at another sideInterestingly, French uses indefinite articles in both parts of the expression.
SpanishPor una parte … por otra parte …For one/a part … for other partSpanish uses an indefinite article in the first part and no article in the second part.
CzechNa jednu stranu … na druhou stranu …On one side … on the other sideAlthough there are no articles in the Czech language, the feeling is that of the first “side” being indefinite whereas the second one being “the other one”.

Overall, it seems that the usage of articles is not governed by any deeper logic; one just has to get used to the usual expressions in the respective languages.

By the way, are you not a native English speaker? Then you should check out the list of over 500 commonly mispronounced words I have compiled in the form of a book. There's also a downloadable PDF version.

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