‘Only’, the Lonely

I wish people would think about the placement of the single word only. Where it falls in your sentence can have a crucial effect on meaning. Only feels lonely because it’s often in the wrong place at the wrong time, misused and misunderstood.

Consider these examples (devised by James Forrest, emeritus professor, Department of English, U. of Alberta):

He only told her that he loved her
He told only her that he loved her
He told her only that he loved her
He told her that only he loved her
He told her that he only loved her
He told her that he loved only her
He told her that he loved her only

In speech and casual writing, we don’t always place only so carefully. In more formal writing – and certainly in transactional drafting – misplacement can lead to ambiguity and confusion.

For this reason, Richard Wydick calls only a ‘troublesome modifier’.

To avoid problems with only, place it immediately before the word you want to modify (as in the Forrest examples), or isolate it at the end or beginning of a sentence.

Examples adapted from Wydick’s Plain English for Lawyers, 5th ed. (2005)) follow.

Ambiguous: The lessee shall use the vessel only for recreation.
Clear: The lessee must use the vessel for recreation only.

Ambiguous: Shares are sold to the public only by the parent corporation.
Clear: Only the parent corporation sells shares to the public.

Where contractual certainty is not at stake, you can be a bit less careful (and H.W. Fowler warns in Modern English Usage against excessive pedantry on this point), but you still run the risk of conveying a slightly different meaning than intended.

Next week: hyphens and dashes

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. Love this Neil!

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