There Can Only Be A Single Number One Cause

"Meat and animal products are one of the number one causes of food poisoning," proclaims the web site for the Australian Institute of Food Safety. This is not a statement that makes any sense. By definition, there is only a single "number one cause" of anything. It didn't get to the top of the list by sharing that position with others.

#1 picture from Shutterstock

A cursory online search suggests this error is distressingly common, and not just in random blog posts or advertising copy. It also pops up in many a professional news report. Yet more evidence that not enough people proofread their work these days.

The lesson? If you know something is indisputably the "number one cause" of something, feel free to describe it as such (ideally with supporting evidence). If you don't know -- either because you're too lazy to find out or because the evidence is contradictory or unclear -- then use a less definite phrase, such as "one of the major causes". Precision matters, and accuracy matters too.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


    Yes, but that won't sell the newspaper will it? Just like headlines as "Economy Strong" or "Person Gets Helped by Motorist" won't either.

    Headlines like "Economy Weakening" and "Person Killed my Motorist". now THEY sell papers.

    Last edited 01/07/13 3:44 pm

    I am literally applaud that the Australian Institute of Food Safety said that “Meat and animal products are one of the number one causes of food poisoning,” but if it's any constellation, they probability didn't make this moustache on porpoise.

    Getting a bit pedantic, aren't we?. I mean meat is a subset of animal products, not a separate category. I guess they could have said, "Animal products, including meat, are the number one cause of food poisoning".

      You're missing the point completely.

      It's that you can't say "one of the number one causes" - there is only one number one cause, not a collection of them. Number one is number one by being the only one.

      But I guess you would have know that if you read the article.

      I agree - animal products is a set, and one set can be a 'number one cause' of whatever the hell you want. And meat is a subset of the set of animal products.

      I also agree that a number of things can't be a number one cause - i.e. "heart attacks and stroke are the number one causes of death in Australia". No. Cardiac issues - yes, that's a set. Stroke is not in that set and can't be part of a 'number one' anything.

      As a side note, I also hate "This is one of the only causes of food poisoning". No. The only cause. Or, one of the very few causes.

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