Only: The “Four-Letter Word” That Is Often Out of Place

by Owen Fourie

It seems that the source of the bickering about where to use this “four-letter word” is a bishop. Well, he was not consecrated as a bishop until 1766.

Robert Lowth (1710-1787) was apparently the first person to say anything about the placement of only. That was in 1763, so we have a controversy that has raged for almost 250 years.

Only can be used as an adjective, as a conjunction, and as an adverb. Here we are considering its use only as an adverb.

Much has been written about the misplacement of only and its correct placement.

Does it really matter?

There are two answers to this question apart from the commitment of the feuding parties to their positions.

  1. Yes, it does matter when a statement is ambiguous.
  2. No, it doesn’t matter if the meaning is clear to the reader or the listener.

What is the meaning of ambiguous?

When a statement is ambiguous, it can be interpreted in more than one way.

Consider this sentence:

Emily only practices uneven bars on Saturday afternoons.

Does the speaker or the writer mean that this is the only exercise she practices or the only time that she practices it?

By shifting the position of only, the ambiguity will be removed.

Emily practices only uneven bars on Saturday afternoons. (not balance beam or any other gymnastic exercise)

Emily practices uneven bars only on Saturday afternoons. (and at no other time)

What is the rule for the placement of only?

By shifting only to adjoin the word or term that it limits or modifies, the meaning is made clear. There is no ambiguity.

This is the rule for the positioning of only: it must be placed immediately before the word or words that it modifies.

When should this rule be followed?

In any formal situation where you are expected or required to use English according to its rules, you would be wise to be careful about your use of only as an adverb.

When can we “forget” this rule?

In any informal situation, whether in speaking or in writing, particularly amongst friends who are not likely to mistake your meaning, the placement of only before the verb is acceptable.

Although adverbs can be placed at the beginning (before the subject) and at the end (after the object) of sentences, they are often found before the verb.

This placement is grammatically sound. It is also the idiomatic or conversational style of English, which the rule for the placement of only finds difficult to control!

Who has kept this rule and who has broken it?

Many well known authors chose to place only before the verb with little regard to the rigidity of the rule.

Of course, amongst them are those who lived and died before Lowth’s rule, such as John Dryden and Joseph Addison.

Samuel Johnson, the famous Dr. Johnson, a contemporary of Lowth, did not keep the rule.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Elliot, and Ernest Hemingway readily broke the rule.

Other well-known writers have observed the rule. Amongst them, we could mention Jane Austen and William Faulkner.

At least one writer, James Thurber, observed the rule and broke it.

[For information about these authors and many others on this matter, see Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1994. 691-93. Print.]

Why fuss?

If so many famous writers disregarded the rule, is there any justification for pouncing on every apparent misplacement of only?

For the sake of clarity, especially in formal situations, let’s place only as near as possible to the word or term it is modifying.

Be aware of ambiguity and eliminate it quickly.

Where the meaning is obvious, in informal situations, place only before the verb and relax! Let whoever wants to fuss about it, do so. You know what you mean.


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