Copy-wise: It's only one word, but where you place it matters

September 26, 2016 1:57 pm

“Only I have eyes for you.” “I have only eyes for you.” “I have eyes for only you.”

only

Read each of those sentences above again and think about how they differ. While they vary in the placement of just one word – ‘only’ – they convey very different meanings. And, for most reasonable people, only the last one’s meaning makes sense.

Grammar mavens recommend placing the word ‘only’ closest to the word or phrase it’s intended to modify. For example, here’s the American Heritage Dictionary’s advice:

“The surest way to prevent readers from misinterpreting ‘only’ is to place it next to the word or words it modifies. Many usage sticklers view this policy as a rule that should always be followed but in many cases it sounds more natural for ‘only’ to come earlier in the sentence, and if the preceding context is sufficiently clear, there is scant likelihood of being misunderstood.”

Still, the dictionary acknowledges, “The adverb ‘only’ is notorious for its ability to change the meaning of a sentence depending on its placement. Consider the difference in meaning in the following examples: ‘Dictators respect only force; they are not moved by words.’ ‘Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it.’”

While context can help, especially in spoken conversations, some uses of ‘only’ can still cause confusion. Here’s how linguistics blogger Neal Whitman – who describes ‘only’ as “the most insidious misplaced modifier” – explains the ambiguity:

“‘John only hit Peter in the nose’ can have at least two meanings. It could mean that John hit Peter in the nose and didn’t do anything else. He didn’t trip him, call him names or put a ‘Kick Me’ sign on his back. On the other hand, if I say, ‘John only hit Peter in the nose’, I mean that John hit Peter in the nose and did not do anything else to Peter’s nose. He didn’t pinch it, kick it or kiss it.”

Here’s a trick that can be helpful for avoiding ‘only’ angst: try replacing that word with this phrase – ‘nothing (or no one) else but’ – and then decide whether the resulting sentence makes sense. Let’s see how this works by applying it to the sentences that started this post:

“No one else but I have eyes for you.”* “I have nothing else but eyes for you.” “I have eyes for no one else but you.”

Make more sense? As noted early, it should be clear now that only the last sentence has a meaning that’s reasonable, realistic and not creepy.

* Yes, if we’re going to be real sticklers here, that should say, “No one else but I has eyes for you.” But that’s a Copy-wise post for another time.

* photo credit: Bus lane on Wall Street. Curb bump out for improved bus stop via photopin (license)

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