Author Topic: How to avoid semantic bedlam in the usage of the word "only"  (Read 6532 times)

Joe Carillo

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How many times have you been misunderstood in your writing because you had wrongly positioned the word “only” in your sentence? For instance, you might have meant that it was only you who believed in the innocence of the accused, but you ended up conveying the wrong sense because you wrote “I only believed in the innocence of the accused” instead of the correct “Only I believed in the innocence of the accused.”

Like so many others, you must have committed this gaffe in using “only” not just a few times, but had you ever given it more thought and ultimately figured out why it happens so often? Well, it’s because “only” is the ultimate floating modifier in the English language, so movable and so easily misplaced in a sentence that it could trip both native and nonnative English speakers alike into writing—or saying—something they didn’t really mean.

I discussed this rather sticky problem in an essay, “When ‘only’ goes haywire,” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in March 2004. I thought that some Forum members and our guests might benefit from that essay’s prescriptions for avoiding bedlam in the usage of “only,” so I decided to post it in this week’s edition of the Forum.

Here goes the essay… (July 10, 2010)

When “only” goes haywire

Among nonnative English speakers, easily the most movable and most easily misplaced modifier is the word “only.” In any of its three roles as adjective, adverb, or conjunction, “only” can effortlessly flit from place to place, creating as many meanings as the number of positions it perches upon in the sentence. It is, in a word, the ultimate floating quantifier, either intensifying or diminishing the semantic degree of the nouns or verbs it modifies, at times neatly linking one clause to another of its kind, but in the process baffling linguists and students of the language for the last 500 years.


Consider, for instance, the different meanings “only” creates by virtue of the five positions it takes in the following sentences:

•   “Only I think Jennifer belongs to this league.” (“It’s only I that think Jennifer belongs to this league.”)

•   “I only think Jennifer belongs to this league.” (“That’s the only thought I have at the moment: that Jennifer belongs to this league.”)

•   “I think only Jennifer belongs to this league.” (“This is what I think: only Jennifer belongs to this league and no one else around here.”

•   “I think Jennifer belongs only to this league.” (“This is what I think: Jennifer belongs only to this league and to no other.”)

•   “I think Jennifer belongs to this league only.” (“This is what I think: it is only to this league that Jennifer rightfully belongs.”)

Then, after these five adjectival or adverbial roles, consider, too, how “only” works as a conjunction:

•   In the role of “but”: “You may vote anyone you like, only vote wisely.”

•   In the role of “and yet”: “Jennifer looks lovely, only she’s already very much married.”

•   In the role of “except” or “were it not that”: “I’d like to bring Jennifer to Baguio, only that she might enjoy the place so much and stay there the whole summer.”

Even without its role as a conjunctive, however, “only” is already capable of creating so much ambiguity and semantic mischief if we are not careful. For instance, when describing a situation where we wanted to talk to a manager but only got as far as talking to his secretary, we probably would say “I saw only his secretary” or “I only saw his secretary,” either of which would adequately convey what happened. Then take note that a rather stilted way to say it, “I saw his secretary only,” even more faithfully describes what happened. Even so, the ambiguity remains.

The situation isn’t that bad in spoken usage, where “only” can be floated more freely without creating ambiguity. This is because a stronger stress can always be given to the word that the speaker wants “only” to modify, thus clearly establishing a clear intent and semantic linkage. We can see how this speech mechanism operates in the following spoken constructions, where the stressed words are shown in all-capital letters:

“I only saw HIS SECRETARY.” (“I saw nobody else.”)

“I only SAW his secretary.” (“Yes, I did see her, but I didn’t speak to her.”)

Taking into account the pitfalls in using “only” as a floating modifier in written prose, language experts have come up with the following recommendation: to be safe, place “only” immediately before the phrase we want it to modify. This means that in the office situation we described earlier, for instance, the safest—but not necessarily the best—written construction to describe what happened is the first version: “I saw only his secretary.” With “only” coming right before the noun phrase it modifies, “his secretary,” the construction poses the least danger of ambiguity. When spoken, however, the most natural and most felicitous version is obviously this other one: “I only saw his secretary.” It is much closer to the rhythm of speech, and it will be foolhardy for us to tinker with it simply to conform to the norms for edited or more formal prose.

For sure, there will be situations when written and spoken prose will clash head-on as to where to position “only” in a sentence. When this happens, we have to take recourse to what linguists call disambiguating qualifiers, or additional statements designed to clarify our meaning and eliminate ambiguity. This was the purpose of the parenthetical statements that accompanied the five “only”-usage examples that we took up earlier.

Those statements, of course, are not real disambiguating qualifiers because they are not part and parcel of the sentences themselves. A true disambiguating qualifier is integral to the statement, and already anticipates the ambiguity created when the main statement uses “only” as a floating quantifier. A good example is this: “I think only Jennifer belongs to this league; all the others simply fall short of the stringent requirements.”

In written prose, that’s actually the surest, most elegant way of preventing statements modified by “only” from going haywire. (March 4, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 4, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: July 11, 2017, 01:26:47 AM by Joe Carillo »