Placement of “Only”

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  • Nancy Tuten

    11 April 2019

    Placement of “Only”

    Can you spot potential ambiguity 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 “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. A hibernating animal engages in a great deal of sleeping, so 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 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. In some cases, however, 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 even when they are ambiguous. 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 we intended the meaning expressed in the first one (“ate only the cereal”).

    Of course, when speaking, we may be less rigorous about the placement of “only since we typically avoided ambiguity by emphasizing certain words when we speak.

    Note, too, that “only” is not the only word we tend to misplace; we play fast and loose with other modifiers, too, 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.
    4. Only pay for the insurance you need.
    1.  The corporation will make only $3 million this year.
    2.  The tornado damaged only three empty buildings.
    3.  The meeting will be held in San Francisco only if the committee can locate a hotel there with affordable rates.
    4.  Pay only for the insurance you need.

    ©2001 Get It Write. Revised 2018.

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