How the placement of ‘only’ alters a sentence’s meaning

As with many four-letter words, proper application of this modifier makes a heck of difference in conveying your intent, but getting it right can be darn difficult. Here’s how not to mess it up.

Using only correctly

Inaccurate placement of only abounds.

Those sentences with a misplaced only far outweigh those where only is in the right spot: closest to the word it modifies.

Why does the placement of only matter?

Only as an adjective or adverb means solely or exclusively, single or solitary, which is the case in most of the examples below.

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Consider three examples showing that placement of only changes the meaning of each sentence. Then consider how the placement of only applies to these examples:

Only Danny sang at the party. (No one else sang.)

Danny only sang at the party. (He didn’t dance or play the piano.)

Danny sang only at the party. (He didn’t sing elsewhere.)

Getting it right

In the following eight examples, only is correctly placed. Note that only follows a verb, clearly indicating what it modifies.

  • Definitions of plain language that focused only on writing proved too narrow.
  • For a plural ending in s, x or z, add only an apostrophe to show possession.
  • Praise the delivery to Norway of fighter planes that exist only in a video game.
  • The other defendants were charged only with misdemeanors.
  • Buckeye still has only about 60,000 people.
  • He engineered a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.
  • If you get input only from your closest circle, you won’t get the whole picture.
  • It’s not hard to detect when someone wants to hear only praise and support for their own ideas.

Getting it wrong

In the next examples, only is placed incorrectly. Note how often it precedes the verb, when it is intended to modify what follows the verb (underlined). Mentally put it in its correct place.

  • We only have one voice of reason in Alaska.
  • That could discourage widespread acceptance, especially for a product that may onlyhave limited use.
  • VA Secretary McDonald has only fired three people for their involvement in the scandal.
  • On Sunday, the Senate only voted on the two amendments McConnell set up,
  • Reports from Reuters and Politico indicated that the president would only move to end the program after a six-month delay.
  • We only have so many weekends.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that blood can only be drawn from drivers for probable cause and with a warrant.
  • The current bills would only apply to new employees.
  • Starbucks announced plans to open stores that only accept mobile orders.
  • Google is concerned about SSL certificates, which are supposedly only issued after Symantec takes extra steps to verify the identity of the holder.
  • Do you still only write by hand?
  • A favorite Rick Perry flub is his announcement that as president he was going to shutter three federal agencies—and then could only think of two.
  • This doesn’t mean that you can only send a press release for information that would make the front page of The New York Times.
  • The tour company will only collect tasting fees for one person for each winery.
  • You only need 10,000 devoted readers to make a living.
  • When they run a “find word” search of your work and “that” only appears a handful of times, you already have a leg up.
  • Why does designer Vivienne Westwood only bathe once a week?
  • The asteroid was only spotted seven hours before flying past Earth.
  • You only have room for one blurb on the front and maybe two more on the back.
  • He is anticipating opposition from some of his fellow Republicans to a bill that only gives “Dreamers” legal status.
  • The McDowell Sonoran Preserve could only be built if voters approve the proposed construction.

One other application of only

Using only after if can express a wish (If only writers used only right … ) or regret (If only I’d paid attention … ), or it can mean “if for no other reason” (She told him she’d already done it, if only to stop his reminders).

Kathy Watson is a business writer and editor based in Arizona. A version of this post first appeared on the Ruthless Editor blog.

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