For being such a small word, only wreaks a lot of havoc — largely because it’s probably the most frequently misplaced word in the English language.
Its proper placement is immediately before the word or phrase it modifies. The farther it strays, the more likely ambiguity will result.
Consider these examples:
Only Sarah sees clients on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Sarah only sees clients on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Sarah sees only clients on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Sarah sees clients only on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Each sentence means something slightly different:
- The placement of only in the first example means that only Sarah, and nobody else, sees clients on those two days.
- The second sentence could mean that Sarah only visits with clients in person, rather than over the phone or by email, on those two days.
- In the third example, the meaning is that Sarah sees just clients, and nobody else, on those days.
- The fourth sentence suggests that Sarah sees clients only on those two days and no others.
The random placement of only erodes these nuances.
Oral vs. Written Communications
In speaking, the second example, in which only is positioned directly before the verb, is the default for many. And because of the context and the speaker’s intonation or emphasis, the meaning is usually clear. That’s not always the case in writing. Casual communications that have a conversational tone are one thing. But in formal documents, the careful writer should position only where it belongs to avoid any ambiguity.
The Chicago Manual of Style (5.182) concurs, saying “rigorous placement of only is preferable to aid the reader’s comprehension.” Likewise, Bryan Gardner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, says, “The more words separating only from its correct position, the more awkward the sentence; and such a separation can lead to ambiguities.”
As always, we at ProofreadNOW.com let context guide us. If we’re reviewing a transcript, speech or writing with a conversational tone, we’re likely to leave an incorrectly placed only as is if it sounds natural and the meaning is clear. In more formal writing, we’ll move only to directly precede what it modifies.
This week’s post is in response to a reader request for more explanation on the subject. Let us know in the comments below about any burning grammar questions you’d like us to tackle here.