The Grammarphobia Blog

Only the lonely

Q: It drives me nuts that most people put “only” way up front in a sentence so it acts as an adverb and not as an adjective. Example: “I only want to ask you one question.” Translation: I have only one want, and I don’t care which of the collective you answers me.

A: A few years ago, a reader of the blog scolded Pat for misplacing an “only” during one of her appearances with Leonard Lopate on WNYC.

Pat agreed that “only” should generally be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), especially if there’s a chance of being misunderstood.

But in many cases, if not most, the placement of “only” won’t be misunderstood, she noted, and a sentence may sound better with “only” placed near the front.

Let’s take a look at your example: “I only want to ask you one question.”

Most people would understand that sentence to mean the speaker has only one question to ask. And most would probably feel that putting “only” before “one” would sound too formal.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) remarks in a usage note 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.”

Although Pat’s grammar and usage guide Woe Is I recommends putting “only” before the word or phrase being singled out, it notes that the “whole point of putting only in its place is to make yourself understood.”

In informal writing and conversation, the book says, “if no one’s likely to mistake your meaning it’s fine to put only where it seems most natural—usually in front of the verb.”

Your question got us wondering, however, why many language authorities are so insistent on the “proper” placement of “only,” even when there’s no chance of being misunderstood.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says this concern about “the misplaced only has been around for over two centuries.”

The first language maven to raise the issue was apparently Robert Lowth, the guy who popularized the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

In A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1763), Lowth writes: “Thus it is commonly said, ‘I only spake three words’: when the intention of the speaker manifestly requires, ‘I spake only three words.’ ”

Although many usage authorities have endorsed this view, many writers have ignored it.

“Who are the writers who misplace only?” Merriam-Webster’s asks, and then proceeds to answer its own question.

The miscreants include John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Tobias Smollett, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Ruskin, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, James Thurber, Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, Evelyn Waugh, and E. L. Doctorow.

We’ll let H. W. Fowler, the language maven’s language maven, have the final say on this:

“For He only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.”

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