The “Only” Place

By Mark Nichol

In spoken English, even the most careful speaker may casually misplace the modifier only in a sentence, as in “The meeting will only be held if the ordinance passes.” The intended meaning here is that whether the ordinance passes determines whether the meeting is to be held.

Literally, however, the sentence indicates that the holding is the only action that will pertain to the meeting if the ordinance passes. (The meeting will not be recorded or reported on, for example, but if the ordinance fails, perhaps these and other things will occur in relation to the meeting.) As the parenthesized sentence before this one demonstrates, the meaning is changed depending the positioning of only: In the original sentence, the meeting is not conditional on the passage of the ordinance, though that is exactly what the speaker or writer means. Therefore, to accurately convey the meaning of the sentence, the word only should appear immediately after the word, phrase, or clause it modifies.

Because a speaker can provide stress to the sentence, a listener is unlikely to misunderstand it, but a writer has no such advantage. Ambiguity is not inevitable when misplacing the modifier in written expression, but the careful writer makes the effort to produce a sentence that is syntactically sound.

Here is another sentence best expressed with only positioned correctly: “Are we certain that participants only reside in those neighborhoods?” The significant point appears to be that the participants reside in those places but do not have any other connection to them. The intended meaning, however, is that the “we” are uncertain whether the participants live only in the specified locations and not in other places. This meaning is best conveyed by writing, “Are we certain participants reside only in those neighborhoods?”

Note the difference in meaning when inserting the modifier only in various positions in the sentence “Smith said he could only confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody.”

1. Only Smith said he could confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody. (No one else made the claim that Smith could confirm the information.)

2. Smith only said he could confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody. (Smith didn’t say anything else.)

3. Smith said only he could confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody. (According to Smith, he is the only one who could confirm the information.)

4. Smith said he only could confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody. (Smith could not do anything else but potentially confirm the information.)

5. Smith said he could only confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody. (Smith could confirm the information but do nothing else about or to it.)

6. Smith said he could confirm only that nine demonstrators were taken into custody. (Smith could confirm nothing else but the information he provided.)

7. Smith said he could confirm that only nine demonstrators were taken into custody. (Smith was able to specify that nine demonstrators, not another quantity, were arrested, with the implication that other demonstrators were not arrested.)

8. Smith said he could confirm that nine only demonstrators were taken into custody. (This sentence seems to indicate, albeit ungrammatically, that the people arrested were only demonstrators and had no other occupation or pastime.)

9. Smith said he could confirm that nine demonstrators only were taken into custody. (The number of demonstrators arrested was only nine; unlike version number 7, this sentence does not necessarily imply additional demonstrators.)

10. Smith said he could confirm that nine demonstrators were only taken into custody. (The demonstrators were taken into custody, but nothing else pertaining to custody occurred to them.)

11. Smith said he could confirm that nine demonstrators were taken only into custody. (The demonstrators were not taken anywhere except into custody.)

12. Smith said he could confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into only custody. (The demonstrators were taken into a type of custody known as “only custody”; like version number 8, this sentence is not grammatically correct.)

13. Smith said he could confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody only. (Nothing else was done to the demonstrators besides taking them into custody.)

The usual placement error for this type of sentence is “Smith said he could only confirm that nine demonstrators were taken into custody,” where only erroneously precedes the pertinent verb, suggesting that confirmation is all that could be done. However, the point that the stated item of information, and only that item, could be confirmed is correctly stated thus: “Smith said he could confirm only that nine demonstrators were taken into custody.” (Therefore, version 6 above is the only version suitable to express the intended meaning.)

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2 Responses to “The “Only” Place”

  • Chris Norbury

    Thanks for an enlightening article. I will forever view the word “only” in a new light, albeit a more confusing, think-about-the exact-meaning-I’m-trying-to-express light. 🙂

    Chris

  • thebluebird11

    Always fun to play with “only.” 🙂

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