Stay one step ahead with phrases containing the number one!

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by Liz Walter

It is quite astonishing how many English phrases contain numbers, so this is the first in a mini-series looking at some of the most useful of them. Today, I’m starting – very logically! – with the number one.

If you do/take something one step at a time, you do it carefully and gradually. Similarly, if you are in a difficult situation, especially one in which it is hard to plan for the future, you might take it/things one day at a time:

There’s a lot to learn, but don’t worry, we’ll take it one step at a time.

Doctors are hopeful that he’ll recover, but we’re taking things one day at a time at the moment.

If you are/keep/stay one step ahead, you are slightly more successful or modern than someone or something else, and if you are one up on another person or organization, you have an advantage over them:

We do everything to protect our data, but the hackers always seem to be one step ahead of us.

Tom’s one up on me because he already has a master’s degree in electronics.

If something that someone tells you goes in one ear and out the other, you hear it but you quickly forget it again. If you take one step forward and two steps back, you make some progress, but then something happens to put you back in a worse position than where you started:

I’ve tried to advise her, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

The council has just rejected our application. It’s one step forward and two steps back at the moment.

Describing someone as one in a million is a very appreciative way of saying that they have good qualities that are very unusual. One of a kind is another positive phrase, meaning that someone is unique in some way:

He never stops his work against racism – he really is one in a million!

She was one of a kind: a woman who made her own rules.

I will end with a couple of general and very common phrases. If you say that you will do something one way or another/the other, you mean that you are determined to find a way to do it. If you describe something bad that has happened as (just) one of those things, you mean that you have to accept it because you can’t prevent it:

One way or another, I’m going to make sure he gets the money.

We were disappointed that the weather was so bad, but it’s just one of those things, I suppose.

I hope you find these phrases useful. Look out for my next post, on phrases with the number two!

17 thoughts on “Stay one step ahead with phrases containing the number one!

  1. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you, Liz, for such an interesting and informative article. While reading it I compared English and Russian phrases.They are almost word for word the same.It is very interesting to compare these two languages which have very little in common. But dealing with numbers we seem to have much in common! It’s great!.

  2. Nina

    Liz, I’d like to thank you for these “exercise”. and the examples given are particularly useful. I have been learning English for some time . I can add another phrase containing the number one : He is my number one choice for this project. Am I right to say this about a person who is the best in the company when it comes to skills needed for a certain task?

    1. Alessandro I

      Thanks Liza. I need more practising, otherwise these new idioms go in one ear and out the other. But only one on a million could remember these ! I keep studying, no hurry, one step at a time .. and one way or another, I’ ll speak like natives .
      Bye 🙂 🙂

    1. Liz Walter

      I’m not quite sure of your question, but these are good phrases. We just stay ‘Spot on!’ – (without ‘to me’).

  3. Liza

    Dear Liz Walter,
    I’d like to thank you for the great job you do every time. You are one of a kind, indeed! )))
    I’d also like to contribute to the list with “I owe you one”. But honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea what the true meaning of “one” is in the phrase.
    Do you happen to know what it really implies?
    Thank you in advance!
    Kind regards

    1. Liz Walter

      Thanks so much, Liza! ‘I owe you one’, is a way of thanking someone by telling them you’d be happy to do something in return at some time – but it’s a very casual kind of promise.

    2. Nana

      Hi Liza

      I’d say “I owe you one” actually means “I owe you one favor (in return)”? So, it’s kind of an abbreviated phrase.

      @Liz: Thank you so much for these articles! This is such a fun way to expand my vocabulary bank! 🙂

  4. Maryem Salama

    It goes in one ear and out the other. How astonishing! We have the same proverb literally, and I have been thinking it is ours.

  5. Mohamud

    Thank you for your polite intention which you make those who do read your dictionary more interested in reading and benefiting from it

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