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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.

One problem is that “only” can be confusing even when it is where it’s supposed to be. That’s because for hundreds of years, people—including some very good writers—have failed to follow the rule I gave you. So, for instance, we’re used to reading sentences like “I smelled the gardenia only.” And we know what that means though it doesn’t follow the rule. But what about “I smelled the gardenia only among the houseplants”? If someone said this aloud, the person’s intonation would make clear whether “only” was meant to face forward or back. In writing, though, the sentence is likely to be confusing.

Then, too, consider: “You’ll be delighted by the spring flower show only if you aren’t severely allergic to pollen.” Doesn’t that “only,” coming where it does, bring you up short? It all but forces the mind to do a U-turn. In fact, “only” reminds me of a street sign. Generally, a sign naming the street is most helpful if it’s right on the street corner itself. But in some places, such as major intersections, it’s more helpful if it’s posted well before the corner, so people know what’s coming up and can plan accordingly. In this case, I’d at least be strongly tempted to go with “You’ll only be delighted by the spring flower show if …”

Unquestioningly following the rule, in short, is more likely to lead you astray than just asking yourself whether what you’ve written can be misread.

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.

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