Author Topic: “Preventing the word ‘only’ from going haywire”  (Read 9536 times)

Joe Carillo

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“Preventing the word ‘only’ from going haywire”
« on: February 21, 2024, 09:03:05 AM »
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 flit effortlessly 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 200 years.

                   IMAGE CREDIT: WIKIHOW

Consider, for instance, the different meanings the word “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

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

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

   In the role of “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” would already be capable of creating so much ambiguity and semantic mischief if we are not careful. For instance, when describing a situation when 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’s 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 use of the disambiguating qualifier “all the others simply fall short of the stringent requirements” is actually the surest, most elegant way of preventing the “only”-modified statement from going haywire.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
When the word “only” goes haywire

This essay appeared as Chapter 118 of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, ©2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

(Next: When educators befuddle with their English)          February 29, 2024                                                                                              

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« Last Edit: February 29, 2024, 08:15:29 AM by Joe Carillo »