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Grammar Bite: Snuggling Up to “Only”

Adverb - word from wooden blocks with letters, describes or gives more information concept, random letters around, top view on wooden background

Pop quiz time! If I want you to play a song just for me and I don’t want you to play it for anyone else, where in my sentence do I put only?

1. Only play me a song.
2. Play only me a song.
3. Play me a song only.

If you chose number 2, you’re right. But why?

Only is a delightful little word that can act as an adjective or an adverb; it can modify nouns, verbs, and even other adjectives. Neat trick, only. 

This means that where only appears in the sentence is very important because it can modify just about whatever it precedes–or follows. Our natural tendency is to put only as early as we can in the sentence. But as you can see from our examples, location is everything. Your best bet is to put only as close as you can to the word you want it to modify:

Only Sean loves chocolate cake.
Sean loves only chocolate cake.
Sean only loves chocolate cake.

In the first sentence, Sean is the only person who loves chocolate cake (and if you know me, you know how untrue that is!). In the second sentence, Sean doesn’t love any other kind of cake or perhaps doesn’t love anything else we might be talking about.

The last sentence can mean that Sean loves chocolate cake, but he doesn’t make it or eat it or anything else. But I’ll bet you read it the same way you read the second sentence, with only modifying the subject it follows rather than the verb it precedes. This supports the idea that we put only early in the sentence, and usually no ambiguities result.

These are simple sentences, with clear meanings. There’s not much chance of misreading. But the more complex your sentence, the more only‘s position can affect meaning. Your best bet in those situations is to ensure only is snuggled up next to the word it modifies.

A version of this article originally published on Visual Thesaurus on July 28, 2010.

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