Only

2003-12-22

I'm a stickler when it comes to grammar. Of late, I've found it particularly irksome when writers commit the all-too-common misplacement of the word 'only'. Here's an example:

You will only keep your job if you work hard.

As an adverb or conjunction, 'only' is synonymous both with 'merely' and with 'exclusively'; but, as the OED notes, the term is best placed directly preceding or following the word or phrase it limits -- placing it away from that word or phrase "is now avoided by perspicuous writers". The inherent ambiguity of the sentence quoted above comes into relief when we move the clauses around:

If you work hard, you will only keep your job (as opposed to getting a promotion, perhaps).

vs.

Only if you work hard will you keep your job (you're on notice, Shlinker -- shape up or ship out!).

It's easy to move 'only' so that it limits (in this example) the conditional "if" rather than the verb "keep". So be perspicuous and put 'only' in its place!


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal