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Grammar Bite: Snuggling Up to "Only"

Here's a little grammar quiz from Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing.

Pop quiz time! If I want you to play a song just for me and I don't want you to play it for anyone else, where in my sentence do I put only?

1. Only play me a song.
2. Play only me a song.
3. Play me a song only.

If you chose number 2, you're right. But why?

Only is a delightful little word that can act as an adjective or an adverb; it can modify nouns, verbs, and even other adjectives. Neat trick, only. This means, of course, that where only appears in the sentence is very important because it can modify just about whatever it precedes. Our natural tendency, says Oxford Dictionaries, is to put only as early as we can in the sentence. But as you can see from our examples, location is everything. Your best bet is to put only as close as you can to the word you want it to modify:

Only Sean loves chocolate cake.
Sean loves only chocolate cake.
Sean only loves chocolate cake.

In the first sentence, Sean is the only person who loves chocolate cake (and if you know me, you know how untrue that is!). In the second sentence, Sean doesn't love any other kind of cake or perhaps doesn't love anything else we might be talking about.

Strictly speaking, the last sentence means that Sean loves chocolate cake, but he doesn't make it or eat it or anything else. But I'll bet you read it the same way you read the second sentence. This supports Oxford's statement that we put only early in the sentence, and usually no ambiguities result. And I'd say that in conversation or in casual writing, you can do that. But in formal writing or in statements that will carry more responsibility that claiming my son's love of chocolate cake, your best bet is to ensure only is snuggled up next to the word it modifies.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 28th 2010, 10:19 AM
Comment by: Stephen B.
Thank the gods for this article. The misplacement of "only" drives me nuts. It hath driv'n me mad! And I'm just a playwright. I do enjoy your articles, Erin. Good work. Keep it up.
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
The other day a school teacher contestant on Smarter than a Fifth Grader was given the following sentence having been told there were two pronouns in the sentence and asked which one was in the nominative case.

The sentence was (something like): She gave him the pencil.

Teacher’s answer: him

On a web site I viewed yesterday:

__________ the medical device company filed a patent suite relating to exhaled nitric oxide against ________. Read more on the patent suite filed by _________.

I did just tell my granddaughter in an EMail the other day:

BTW, I just know you only put quotation marks inside the period on EM's to your grandmom, in which case it's perfectly OK. :)

She graduated in May from a very upscale college.

Erin, your work is cut out for you.
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 2:20 PM
Comment by: William D. (Fruitland, MD)
I wonder if the last two sentences will depend on how you say them. The 2nd sounds a bit odd if you say it with excitement. My English sucks basically. I think with some words like only it would depend on how you say the sentences.
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 6:03 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
I'm reading Ben Yagoda's _When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse_, and this makes the third time this week I have quoted it. (It's a humorous, ONLY MILDLY prescriptive, mostly descriptive book.) Calling "only" (along with "just" and "even") a "stealth adverb" that causes a lot of trouble, Yagoda quotes Theodore Bernstein (who is himself quoting a "a grammar guide")thus: "Eight different meanings result from placing 'only' in eight possible positions in the sentence: 'I hit him in the eye yesterday.'" Yagoda says he can't really tell the difference between the meanings of two of those sentences, but suggests readers try it for themselves. I like the one about hitting him in his only eye. Thus spake Odysseus.
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 7:02 PM
Comment by: William T. (Melbourne, FL)
I only wish I had a comm...
Wait a minute.
I wish I only had...oops
Only I...

Aw, ferget it. NO COMMENT.
Wednesday July 28th 2010, 8:24 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Couldn't the third sentence mean that Sean is the only one to love chocolate cake, too? That's the way I interpreted it at first, but I was trying to get to a different meaning, I guess.

Thanks for another great column!
Sunday August 1st 2010, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Deborah D.
I'm with Jane B. I believe that "Sean only" and "Only Sean" can have the same meaning, depending on pronounced stress in the rest of the sentence.

The three pop quiz choices are not equivalent to the Sean vs. chocolate cake choices.

Also, I'm with Jane B. in thanking you for another great column.
Sunday August 29th 2010, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
FWIW, Constance Hale, on page 96 of her book Sin and Syntax, goes through seven permutations of a same sentence by moving only around. It complements nicely what E. Brenner has said here.

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