Posted by: Jack Henry | March 8, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Only

Thanks to Ron Fauset for passing this article along to me, especially since I didn’t get my Sunday newspaper last week. Today’s grammar topic, the word only, is a subject that distresses many people—including me. I’ve read articles and essays on it and I have yet to find the perfect one to share with you. Until then, I will give you this piece from Richard Lederer, which offers an entertaining and informative view on the modifier only.

From Answers to Your One and Only Grammar Questions, in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Dear Mr. Lederer: My complaint is about the oft misused word only. My late high school English teacher must ache in her grave about its misuse today versus what she taught us back in the 1940s. Would you please offer a definitive statement on the correct use of only? — Richard Jones

The placement of the modifier only is one of the trickiest procedures in English usage. The most famous example of its vagaries is the song title “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Formalists argue that the only is mislocated in this title and that the statement misleadingly implies “I have eyes— but no ears, noses or mouths— for you,” rather than “I have eyes for you— and nobody else but you.” They insist that only— like hardly, nearly, almost, scarcely, even and just— must appear right before the word modified, as in “I Have Eyes for Only You.”

In reality no intelligent listener or reader would misinterpret the song line “I only have eyes for you.” When only comes early in such a statement, the listener or reader is forewarned that the qualifier may be attached to almost any word that follows, and it is usually clear what that word is, as in this three-liner joke: Have you read the news that the government has decided to stop deporting unauthorized immigrants? Instead, they’re going to start deporting senior citizens. Turns out we’re easier to catch. They’ll only have to build a wall three-feet high. And we’re senior citizens, so we won’t remember how to find our way back home anyway.

I submit that, in the paragraph above, “They’ll only have to build a wall three-feet high,” with its “misplaced” only, is more effective than “They’ll have to build a wall only three-feet high.” In general, though, when equally natural placements of the modifier only are available, a writer should put the adjective or adverb immediately before the noun or verb it modifies. For example, after hearing or reading the sentence “He only died yesterday,” a listener or reader might well ask, “’Only died’? What could be worse?” Relocating the only to read “He died only yesterday” makes life easier for your listeners and readers.

So what’s the solution? God only knows. Or should that be “Only God knows”?

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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