5 Tips for Fixing “Not Only . . . But Also” Errors

By Mark Nichol

Few constructions cause as much consternation for editors as that in which a contrast is represented with the phrase “not only, . . but.” The solution to garbled syntax in such constructions is simple but bears repeating, so multiple sample sentences follow. But before we go any further, note not only that a comma following “not only” is unnecessary but also that also (or too or as well) is essential after but.

At its most basic, the erroneous sentence structure you will see played out in several variations here is “(Subject) (this) (verb) and (that).” The correct sequence is “(Subject) (verb) (this) and (that).”

1. “I not only knew where this person was shopping and how much he or she was spending, but the exact time of each transaction.”

For such a sentence to exhibit proper parallel structure, the verb following the subject must precede “not only” so that it applies to both parallel phrases, or the verb must be repeated. In the latter case, the sentence would read, “I not only knew where this person was shopping and how much he or she was spending; I also knew the exact time of each transaction.” This solution is correct but cumbersome. (I was tempted to write “not only correct but also cumbersome,” but one is favorable and the other unfavorable, so introducing parallel structure seems inappropriate.)

For clarity and simplicity, try this: “I knew not only where this person was shopping and how much he or she was spending but also the exact time of each transaction.” (Note also the insertion of also.)

2. “When the United Kingdom went through its mad cow mess, it had to bury not just the dead animals that had gotten sick, but had to change its butchering methods.”

That’s a clumsy (and erroneous) attempt to provide the verb twice. It’s far more elegant to compose the sentence so that a single had is strong enough: “When the United Kingdom went through its mad cow mess, it had to not only bury the dead animals that had gotten sick but also change its butchering methods.”

3. “Their drinking may not only reflect difficulties in sleeping and calming down, but the fact that their parents provided a chaotic and inconsistent home environment.”

This sentence almost sounds right, but may, the verb that precedes “not only,” is an auxiliary, or helper, verb; it’s playing second banana to reflect, which must also precede “not only”: “Their drinking may reflect not only difficulties in sleeping and calming down but also the fact that their parents provided a chaotic and inconsistent home environment.”

4. “Extended-stay lodging may not only fulfill a practical purpose but an emotional one.”

The error is most easily seen in sentences such as this one, in which the “but (also)” phrase is brief and noisily clatters to the floor, unsupported by the sentence structure: “Extended-stay lodging may fulfill not only a practical purpose but also an emotional one.”

5. “They understood that the devastation was not solely about the lack of water, but about the way the land had been used.”

This sentence, in which solely stands in for only, places the “not only” element correctly, but, again, the comma is extraneous, and an inserted also is not: “They understood that the devastation was not solely about the lack of water but also about the way the land had been used.”

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18 Responses to “5 Tips for Fixing “Not Only . . . But Also” Errors”

  • Kathryn

    Oh, nice demonstration, in number 2, of when splitting the infiinitive is definitely the stronger choice!

  • Vincent

    This is really informative. I never knew such differences. I use ‘too’ and ‘but’ too often – even ‘as well’. I never understood the use until now!

    Great thanks to Mark Nichol for this post and DWT as well!

  • Precise Edit

    To go a little off-topic here, here’s #2 without the split infinitive.

    Original “When the United Kingdom went through its mad cow mess, it had to not only bury the dead animals that had gotten sick but also change its butchering methods.”

    “Fixed”: When the United Kingdom went through its mad cow mess, it had not only to bury the dead animals that had gotten sick but also to change its butchering methods.”

    In a case like this, with “to” as a word linking parallel items, readers may have difficulty seeing how the parts connect. When we repeat “to” (which keeps the infinitives un-split), the parts may be more clear.

    Rather than “had to not only [verb] but also [verb],” I prefer “had not only [to verb] but also [to verb]” — particularly when the matching parts are complex, lengthy, or have internal verbs.

    And thanks for not putting a comma before the “but also” expression. I see that error often. Not only do many writers add that unnecessary comma but also they forget the “also” word.

  • MN

    For clarity and simplicity, try this: “I knew not only where this person was shopping and how much he or she was spending but also the exact time of each transaction.”

    There is one problem with this sentence though. The item following “but also” should be in the same grammatical form as that following “not only”..

    How about “I knew not only where this person was shopping and how much he or she was spending but also when each transaction occurred”?

  • Mark Nichol

    MN:

    I don’t agree that the revision is grammatically necessary, but I concede that your sentence is more elegant than mine.

  • MN

    Thank you. I should have written “should be in the same grammatical form if possible”.

  • Nancy

    Thanks for this informative refresher. I noticed you and one of the commenters emphasize the inclusion of “also” after “but.” I use the Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition), supplemented by the Gregg Reference Manual (9th edition), in my editing. In both, they allow for omission of “also” (Gregg: 1082b; Chicago: 6.41).

    I am interested in knowing your reasoning for always including “also.” Is it a matter of convention, or is it a structural need within the sentences?

    Thanks.

  • Janie Fletcher

    I am receiving your daily writing tips but did not receive the download for the English Basic Grammar. I would like it.

  • Mark Nichol

    Nancy:

    Thanks for bring up the issue of the mandatory also. I don’t have (or refer to) The Gregg Reference Manual, but notice that in the chapter and verse you reference in The Chicago Manual of Style, also is called for in both examples in which the traditional “not only . . . but also” syntax is included. (An alternative is “not only . . . but . . . as well.”)

    The example in the Chicago entry that lacks also is structured differently: “Being almost perfectly ambidextrous, she wore not one watch but two.” In this case, the idea of two supplants one. However, in the “not only . . . but also” examples, also completes the thought; the sentence is lopsided without it.

    That’s my opinion, anyway; Chicago‘s editors do not explain why they recommend that style, but they do. My philosophy about style is to adhere to a single manual as faithfully as possible (and, when it offers alternatives, to be consistent about which alternative to choose) — my editing mantra is “Minimize exceptions.”

  • Edip Yuksel

    Lovely… English is chronologically my fifth language. I did not know that my problem with “not only” was a diagnosed common problem. You had the medicine. Thank you very much. I would like to pay you by sending you one of books as a gift. Of course, if you are interested in their topic: religion, philosophy, politics, and a healthy dose of math.

  • Mark Nichol

    Edip:

    No gift is necessary; your gratitude is sufficient.

  • MG

    Just saved my meltdown. Starting out as a freelance editor and I just got hit with a BAD attempt at this structure, plus the wrong tenses and a citation in the middle. Although if people actually thought about what they were writing I’d be out of a job!

    Think I’ll subscribe now please!

  • AJ

    I agree. The item following “but also” should be in the same tense and parallel structure as that following “not only.”
    How about: “I knew not only where this person was shopping and how much he or she was spending but also when each transaction was taking place.”

  • AJ

    Well said! I am so glad that you took the time to write this article. Many thanks.

  • Peter

    “For clarity and simplicity, try this: “I knew not only where this person was shopping and how much he or she was spending but also the exact time of each transaction.” (Note also the insertion of also.)”

    For clarity and simplicity, try this, “I knew not only where John was shopping and how much he was spending but also the exact time of each transaction.” Fewer words, less to plough through.

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    Yes, your solution is clearer. The sample sentence was taken from an passage about a person whose gender was unknown to the writer; for simplicity, I should have substituted a person of known gender.

  • An English Teacher

    Aren’t commas not only preferred but also necessary when conjoining independent clauses? Wouldn’t that be true not for subordinating conjunctions but rather for both coordinating conjunctions and correlative conjunctions? Not only do I believe that this sentence is grammatically correct, but I also suspect that it would be incorrect without the comma. Obviously, since the independent clauses in that example have not only the same subject but also essentially synonymous verbs, the sentence could easily be rewritten without the comma (eg: “I not only believe…” or “I believe not only…”). Even so, redundancy is not inherently grammatically incorrect; if it were, I personally feel that I myself would avoid not only the word “personally” but also intensive pronouns. To my knowledge, neither do correlative conjunctions make clauses subordinate, nor does the inversion of subject and verb affect a clause’s independence.

  • Ryan

    “But before we go any further, note not only that a comma following ‘not only’ is unnecessary but also that also (or too or as well) is essential after but.”

    I need to add that the comma is necessary before “but” when the conjunction introduces an independent clause. I demand the comma in my writing. However, as an editor, I demand it only when the correlative conjunction joins two independent clauses.

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