5 Erroneously Constructed “Not Only . . . But Also” Sentences

By Mark Nichol

Writers often have difficulty determining the word order in sentences in which the phrase “not only” appears followed by an example and then, subsequent to “but also,” another example. Here are fixes to five such sentences.

1. “Digital cameras are not only changing photography, but our lives.”
The key to correct syntax in “not only . . . but also” constructions is, when sharing a verb between the two examples, placing “not only” after the verb: “Digital cameras are changing not only photography but also our lives.”

2. “He wasn’t only listening to tone, but also to the rhythms and patterns he would need to understand and communicate.”
This sentences partially conceals the problem because not is part of a contraction. To solve it, spell out the contracted phrase, and follow the rule stated in the explanation of the example above: “He was listening not only to tone but also to the rhythms and patterns he would need to understand and communicate.”

3. “Many people prefer the squatter neighborhoods not only because they provide affordable housing but freedom from government control and a sense of community spirit.”
This sentence is improved by the basic strategy of placing the verb before “not only,” but a further fix is recommended. Because the element following “but also” is a two-part phrase, freedom may be (at least initially) misconstrued as applying to both “government control” and “a sense of community spirit,” so distance the second phrase from the first: “Many people prefer the squatter neighborhoods because they provide not only affordable housing but also freedom from government control, as well as a sense of community spirit.”

4. “We house them in the nicest neighborhoods we can afford, the ones that are not only comfortable in themselves, but that mask direct evidence of the world’s unfairness.”
In this example, each corresponding phrase has its own verb. When this is the case, simply place “not only” and “but also” immediately preceding the respective verbs: “We house them in the nicest neighborhoods we can afford, the ones that not only are comfortable in themselves but also mask direct evidence of the world’s unfairness.”

5. “Eventually, I began to notice that dreams are not only inspirations for creative life and interesting puzzles to be solved, but that they provided access to a world of meaning that was even greater than the tactics of nonviolent social change.”
More complex sentences pose a challenge, but as in the other examples, simply break the sentence elements down. The two points of this sentence are “dreams are inspirations . . .” and “they provide access . . . .” To achieve parallel structure, precede the first phrase with “not only that” and the second one with “but also that”: “Eventually, I began to notice not only that dreams are inspirations for creative life and interesting puzzles to be solved but also that they provide access to a world of meaning that was even greater than the tactics of nonviolent social change.”

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2 Responses to “5 Erroneously Constructed “Not Only . . . But Also” Sentences”

  • Paul Baldwin

    I am confused by the fourth example. The rule and the corrected sentence seem to be contradictory.

  • Larry S

    Unless I’m misreading your analysis of sentence four, “not only” and “but also” should immediately PRECEDE each phrase’s respective verb, rather than follow the verbs. Yes?

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