Saturday, April 25, 2015

On the placement of "only"

In the last two weeks I have marked approximately one million student assignments and copyedited a novel alongside reading several published books. As I perform these activities, my editor brain remarks on consistent issues, such as writers' apparently irresistible desire to refer to certain birds as "Canadian" geese, rather than by their species name, Canada geese. Argh.

My current peeve, however, involves the placement of the modifier only. It's a tricky word, as my set of sample sentences demonstrates:

Only I will have your heart!
I only will have your heart!
I will only have your heart!
I will have only your heart!
I will have your only heart!
I will have your heart only!

So here's the drill: only should be placed close to the sentence constituent it modifies. In most English syntax, that placement means immediately before said constituent.

I may be one of the few editors in the world clinging to this principle, though. And despite that I teach the point in first-year grammar courses, student writers are especially frequent offenders in misplacing only.

Here are some examples. Read the sentences aloud, emphasizing the word or phrase after only. Do you perceive the improved clarity?

Worse: She only uses that word when something is good.
Better: She uses that word only when something is good.

Worse: She only got out of it what she put into it.
Better: She got out of it only what she put into it.

Worse: He could only save the one.
Better: He could save only the one.

The third sentence stands out because the "better" phrasing is not typical of the way we speak. That's the difference between writing and speaking: in writing, we have the opportunity to go back and rephrase an utterance for clarity. In writing we must be more considerate of the reader than we are of the listener when we speak. A listener has our presence and can ask for clarification, but a reader is normally reading without us and cannot ask for help.

In summary, the key idea of today's lesson is this: handle only with care. 

1 comment:

Earl J. Woods said...

Only youuuuu...could make this lesson so clear...only youuuu...only youuuu....only youuuuuuuu...!