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“Only”: The Most Insidious Misplaced Modifier

How putting the word “only” in the wrong place can confuse your readers

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
March 1, 2013
Episode #358

Page 1 of 3

modifierMonday is March 4: National Grammar Day! Of course, every day is Grammar Day as far as I’m concerned, but it’s nice to have a nationally recognized day when grammar enthusiasts can be as grammar-geeky as they want. For my international listeners, you have my permission to consider today International Grammar Day, and share interesting facts about the grammars of any language you know. In recognition of such a grammaracious occasion, today’s topic is one that the late journalist and grammarian James Kilpatrick covered in an annual column: the placement of “only.”

For years, Kilpatrick would devote a column in January to the placement of the adverb “only,” illustrating his point with a sentence like “John hit Peter in the nose.” (1, 2) He would draw his readers’ attention to the differences in meaning between these four versions of the sentence:

  1. Only John hit Peter in the nose.
  2. John hit only Peter in the nose.
  3. John hit Peter only in the nose.
  4. John only hit Peter in the nose.
.

Put the Adverb “Only” as Close as Possible to What It Modifies

His point was that you need to put the adverb “only” as close as possible to the word it modifies. The sentence “Only John hit Peter in the nose” means that John hit Peter in the nose, and no one else did. The sentence “John hit only Peter in the nose” means that John hit Peter in the nose, and didn’t do that to anybody else. The sentence “John hit Peter only in the nose” means that John hit Peter in the nose, not in or on any other part of his body.

Some Placements of the Adverb “Only” are Inherently Confusing

That brings us to the last sentence: “John only hit Peter in the nose.” In this case, the advice about putting “only” as close as possible to the word it modifies might not be enough to make your meaning clear. “John only hit Peter in the nose” can have at least two meanings. It could mean that John hit Peter in the nose, and didn’t do anything else. He didn’t trip him, call him names, or put a “Kick Me” sign on his back. On the other hand, if I say, “John only hit Peter in the nose,” I mean that John hit Peter in the nose, and did not do anything else to Peter’s nose. He didn’t pinch it, kick it, or kiss it.

Adverbs Can Modify Words or Whole Phrases

What’s going on? Where is this meaning difference coming from? The confusion comes from the assumption that “only” always modifies just a word. In fact, it can also modify entire phrases. If I say, “John only hit Peter in the nose,” without stressing any particular word in the verb phrase “hit Peter in the nose,” then “only” can modify that entire phrase. In that case, we mean that hitting Peter in the nose is the only thing John did. No tripping, calling names, or for that matter, riding a bicycle or listening to podcasts.

If I say, “John only hit Peter in the nose,” then “only” is modifying just the verb “hit.” That is, of all the things John could have done to Peter’s nose, hitting is what he did. The stress tells us which specific word in the verb phrase “only” is modifying.

Next: Stress Matters for Modifiers

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