The Grammarphobia Blog

The only one

Q: I was flabbergasted to hear you say on the air that “We only see ulterior when it’s linked with motive” when you should have said that “We see ulterior only when it’s linked with motive.” My father taught me that “only” should be as close as possible to the word it modifies.

A: Your father was right. I have a section on this in my book Woe Is I, using the sentence “The butler says he saw the murder.” The following examples show how the placement of “only” can change the meaning:

Only the butler says he saw the murder. (The butler, and no one else, says he saw the murder.)

The butler only says he saw the murder. (The butler says, but can’t prove, he saw it.)

The butler says only he saw the murder. (The butler says he, and no one else, saw it.)

The butler says he only saw the murder. (He saw – but didn’t hear – the murder.)

The butler says he saw only the murder. (He saw just the murder, and nothing else.)

But in many cases, if not most, the placement of “only” won’t be misunderstood. For example, “I was only trying to help.” Or, “She’s only flown once.” Or, “He only started packing at noon.” It would be pedantic to argue for rearranging those sentences: “I was trying only to help.” Or, “She’s flown only once” Or, “He started packing only at noon.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) remarks in a usage note with its entry for “only” that “there are occasions when placement of only earlier in the sentence seems much more natural, and if the context is sufficiently clear, there is no chance of being misunderstood.”

As for the sentence I perpetrated on the air, it could not have been misunderstood. Still, I wish I had moved “only” a couple of spots back. I hate to give listeners a reason to scold me!

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