Only You Know

Once in a while, placement matters

OK, we’ll admit it: Most of the time you can put “only” anywhere in a sentence and no one will misunderstand you, especially when you’re speaking.

But journalism is all about precision, and a misplaced “only” can confuse some readers, even if once in only a great while.

What are we talking about?

Here’s a sentence, cited by Theodore M. Bernstein in Watch Your Language, that illustrates the point:

I hit him in the eye yesterday.

Put “only” in every possible position, and you’ll see what we mean. Here are a few examples:

Only I hit him in the eye yesterday” means I was the “sole” person to hit him.

“I only hit him in the eye yesterday” means the “single” thing I did was hit him, not poke, shoot, or yell at him.

“I hit only him in the eye yesterday” means I hit no one else, though perhaps there were others around.

“I hit him in the eye onlyyesterday” means that it was as recent as yesterday when I hit him.

For every place you can put “only,” the meaning of the sentence changes in a slight, but meaningful, way.

That’s because “only,” in this case, acts as an adjective or adverb. And, as we know, an adjective or adverb likes to be closest to the word it modifies. If you said “I have green a box,” people would look at you funny, because “green” wants to snuggle up to “box,” the word it modifies.

And so it is in the strictest sense with “only.” It wants to be closest to what it modifies, usually just before. In our examples above, you can see how its next-door neighbor changes when “only” moves in.

Whether placement matters has been debated by grammarians for hundreds of years, and it’s not a cardinal sin to “misplace” only. And many usage guides waffle on it as well: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Languagesays “there are occasions when placement of only earlier in the sentence seems much more natural, and if the context is sufficiently clear, there is no chance of being misunderstood.”

Only you need to know if your readers will understand where you put your “only.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,