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Use 'Only' with Care. How To Use 'Only' in Writing

by Paul Schneiter

The placement of the adverb only in a sentence is a matter to which many writers and speakers give Insufficient attention.  That is ironic because grammarians, academics, and others have debated such placement for hundreds of years, beginning with Reverend Robert Lowth in 1762.  The book The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, Third Edition, devotes a page and a half to only (see below).

You have probably written or said something like this:  I  only wrote two poems last night.  That construction could suggest that its author didn’t do anything last night but write two poems. Clarity requires that the sentence be changed to I wrote only two poems last night. 

Another example of the displacement of only:  His jacket to the view was only clean. That suggests the rest of his clothing wasn’t clean, which isn’t what the writer meant. He should have written His jacket only to the view was clean, which means the writer could see only his jacket and it was clean.

Displacement is most common in conversation.  Someone may say She only died a week ago. That translates into “A week ago she didn’t do anything but die.” Obviously,  the sentence should read “Only a week ago, she died” or “She died only a week ago.”  Henry William Fowler, who published the gold standard of English usage books in 1926, excused the error on the ground that a reasonable person would understand what the speaker was saying.  But why leave it to chance? Fowler died in 1933.  His book was updated by R. W. Burchfield and published in 1965 as The New Fowler's Modern English Usage.

What is meant when a writer composes the following sentence?  John only drinks beer when alone.  Does the writer mean when John is alone he doesn’t drink anything but beer?  Or does the writer mean John doesn’t drink beer unless he is alone? Both interpretations are plausible.

Assume you are writing about a boy who loves dogs.  You could write Sean only loves dogs (the solitary thing he loves is dogs).  Or you could write Only Sean loves dogs (no one else loves dogs).  Or, finally, you could write Sean loves only dogs (he doesn’t love anything else).  The meaning of the three sentences is clear; only is not displaced. I include the sentences here to demonstrate how placement of only changes meaning.

Bottom line:  Use only with care.