March 31st, 2004
Where only goes / Your Own Words
by Barbara Wallraff
Karen Codner, of West Sand Lake, N.Y., writes, “I notice such sloppy placement of the word ‘only.’ I was taught that entirely different meanings can be conveyed depending on where ‘only’ appears in the sentence. For example: ‘Only I smelled the flower’ (no one else). ‘I only smelled the flower’ (did not touch). ‘I smelled only the flower’ (nothing else). ‘I smelled the only flower’ (there was just one). There must be a rule, but why isn’t it being taught anymore?”
There is indeed a rule: Only place “only” directly before the word or words it modifies. Oops—I mean: Place “only” only directly before what it modifies. And already maybe it’s clear that this simple rule is an oversimplification.
Steve Binder, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes, “I really enjoy your Word Court. It’s not only enlightening, but I usually agree with it. Do you have the columns compiled? Is there a book? It would be interesting and a great gift.”
Say, I like you too! And the timing of your letter is perfect. This week will see the publication of my second book, “Your Own Words,” a portion of which is derived from this column. Overall, the book is about how to be your own language expert and solve language problems confidently. But even if you learn all my secrets from it, please don’t stop writing me. You might also enjoy my first book, titled “Word Court,” which grew out of the companion column to this one that appears in The Atlantic Monthly.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.