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Only one right place for ‘only’?

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Written by Stan Carey

It’s only a little word, but only has been hotly debated for the last two and a half centuries. What has exercised critics and writers is where exactly it should go in a sentence. Is there a definitive right or wrong answer, or is it more complicated than some authorities insist? We need only look more closely to decide. Or we only need to look.

The position of most words in a sentence is self-evident and predictable. Only, used as an adverb, is more flexible. For example, try adding it to various places in the line: I found the eggs in the first shed. Notice how it tends to modify what it directly precedes (or sometimes follows). This ability to affect different elements can generate ambiguity, which has led some prescriptivists to apply an overly strict rule.

In a lengthy note in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler writes sensibly that it’s ‘not worth while to depart from the natural’ (i.e., from what sounds natural in speech or prose) when the risk of misunderstanding is low. Other critics are less liberal. Garner’s Modern English Usage says only is ‘perhaps the most frequently misplaced of all English words’. Edward Gould’s Good English says (absurdly) that the word ‘cannot be found in its proper place in any book within the whole range of English literature’.

Such warnings abound in usage guides and writing manuals, but they overstate the danger; much meaning hinges on common sense. As Oliver Kamm writes in Accidence Will Happen, ‘The jazz song “I Only Have Eyes for You” … doesn’t imply that the other organs are uncaring.’ Genuine ambiguity is not very common, and good writing has countless examples to which critics would object – including from Dryden, Ruskin, and Samuel Johnson. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, this disparity between guidance and practice is a result of a rule based on logic being applied to ‘the natural idiom of speech’ and to prose that was not heavily revised.

Placement of adverbial only may be guided by the desire to convey a particular tone or style or to emphasise a certain part of a sentence. In speech, we can do this with intonation, but writing has different demands. It’s important to be aware of the possibility for ambiguity, and it’s useful to consider the different options to see what effect they may have on balance, sound, stress, and sense. And if you make a mistake, well, only you are only human.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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