Placement of Only

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  • Nancy Tuten

    3 May 2017

    Placement of Only

    Can you identify a problem in any of these sentences?

    1. The budget can only be balanced if programs are cut for next year.
    2. Many animals hibernate in the winter, only waking occasionally for nourishment.
    3. The team only scored two runs in the first seven innings.

    In each of these sentences, the modifier only needs to be closer to the word, phrase, or clause it modifies. Each sentence would be more precise, and thus clearer, if we repositioned the word only:

    1. The budget can be balanced only if programs are cut for next year.
    2. Many animals hibernate in winter, waking only occasionally for nourishment.
    3. The team scored only two runs in the first seven innings.

    In the incorrect version of sentence 1, the word only modifies the verb phrase “can be balanced,” wrongly suggesting that something other than balancing might be done to the budget. The actual idea, however, is that the budget can be balanced “only if programs are cut.”

    The first version of sentence 2 is illogical because only modifies waking. Since a hibernating animal engages in a great deal of sleeping, it makes no sense to suggest that he or she is “only waking.” In the improved version, the sentence more appropriately tells us that the animal wakes “only occasionally.” Notice that if we move the word only once again in this sentence, we can suggest a different idea altogether: that the animal wakes occasionally “only for nourishment.”

    Our original third sentence falsely states that the team “only scored,” suggesting that they did not hit, run, pitch, or do anything else during the first seven innings. More logically, we want to say that the team scored “only two runs” during that time period.

    In most cases, one could argue that the meaning of a sentence is clear even when the modifier only is misplaced. However, in some cases a sentence is changed drastically in meaning when we change the placement of the modifier. Because we as writers always know what we mean to say, we may think that our sentences are clear when in fact they are ambiguous at best. Consider the variety of meanings we can elicit when we move the word only in the following sentences:

    • The child ate only the cereal for breakfast. (Translation: Cereal was the only food eaten by the child at the morning meal.)
    • Only the child ate the cereal for breakfast. (Translation: No one but the child ate the cereal for breakfast.)
    • The child ate the cereal for breakfast only. (Translation: The child ate something other than the cereal for lunch and dinner.)
    • The child only ate the cereal for breakfast. (Translation: The child merely ate the cereal; she did not dump it on the floor, mash it in her hair, or spit it at her father.)

    Many of us would have written this last sentence (“only ate the cereal”) when in fact we intended the meaning of the first one (“ate only the cereal”).

    Of course, when speaking or writing casually, we may be less rigorous about the placement of only “since ambiguity is avoided through sentence stress.”

    Note, too, that we tend also to misplace other similar adverbs, such as just, merely, simply, and so forth.

    The proper placement of modifiers not only makes writing clearer and more precise but also gives it a more sophisticated, polished tone.


    Could the word only be placed more carefully in any of the following sentences?

    1. The corporation will only make $3 million this year.
    2. The tornado only damaged three empty buildings.
    3. The meeting will only be held in San Francisco if the committee can find a hotel there with affordable rates.
    1. only $3 million
    2. damaged only three empty buildings
    3. only if the committee can locate a hotel there with affordable rates

    ©2001 Get It Write. Revised 2018.