Thursday, May 19, 2011

The challenge of putting "only" where it belongs

Nothing tests the precision of our writing like the placement of modifiers like "only" and "just."

Note how the meaning in the following sentences changes according to the position of only.

She said that she loved only him. [She loved no one else.]
She said that she only loved him. [Even love has its limitations.]
She said that only she loved him. [No one else loved him.]
She said only that she loved him. [She said nothing else.]
Only she said that she loved him. [No one else said it.]
She only said that she loved him. [She didn't mean it.]

This is covered in Harbrace Chapter 25, entitled Coherence: Misplaced Parts, Dangling Modifiers, which starts with the straightforward advice, "Keep related parts of a sentence together. Avoid dangling modifiers."

Rule 25a: To make your meaning clear to readers, place modifiers near the words they modify.

Section 25(1) reads, "In formal English, place modifiers such as almost, only, just, even, hardly, nearly and merely immediately before the words they modify."

The placement of "only" and "just" can change the meaning of a sentence in any number of ways.

Here are several examples of misplaced "only"s:

From the Knoxville News Sentinel: "A Parade All-America, [tailback Gerald] Riggs only managed 256 yards before [coach Trooper] Taylor's arrival."
The point is that 256 yards were not that many, so the "only" should go next to 256. As the sentence reads now, it implies that Riggs only "managed" 256 yards--that is, he didn't do something else with them.

In another News Sentinel story, the point guard for the Christian Academy of Knoxville hoops team commented on a 6'5" youngster who had recently arrived at his school: "They said he was only playing baseball." [This could mean that he was doing the sport more for fun than for long-term ambition.]
The point guard meant to say, "They said he was playing only baseball,"-- that is, not playing basketball, as a 6'5" youngster should.

Before the college football bowl season a few years ago, the News Sentinel explained that UT fans had been asked to send in ticket requests for two bowl games, so the ticketing process would be further along when bowl selections were announced. In the story, an otherwise carefully worded sentence reads, "Fans are only obligated to purchase tickets for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."
With the word "only" placed as it is, the meaning of the sentence is that fans are only obligated to purchase tickets, they are not required or bound in some stricter way. To achieve the meaning intended, it should read, "Fans are obligated to purchase tickets only for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."

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