Not only . . . but also

I cannot figure out why so many otherwise sophisticated writers are so prone to treating the phrase not only as a license to compose a run-on sentence. The traditional rule is that the conjunction not only should be paired with its correlative but also. For example:

I am not only a grumpmeister but also a happily retired lawyer.

The but also phrase is necessary to link the two clauses together to form a single sentence. Alternatively, it is perfectly acceptable to omit the but also formulation so long as the result is not a run-on sentence. For example:

I am not only a grumpmeister; I am also a happily retired lawyer.

Or:

I am not only a grumpmeister. I am also a happily retired lawyer.

In these examples, two independent clauses are linked together with a semicolon to form a single sentence or are written as two discrete sentences separated by a period. Either approach is permissible.

What is wholly impermissible is to link two independent clauses, each of which can stand alone as a separate sentence, using nothing but a comma, thereby forming precisely the sort of run-on sentence (or what some grammarians call a comma splice) that we learned to avoid in third or fourth grade. For example:

I am not only a grumpmeister, I am also a happily retired lawyer.

This is no more acceptable, in my view, than saying “I went to the store to buy milk, I also bought cereal.” Yet this gross error pervades contemporary writing. I see it everywhere, and it drives me nuts. My impression is that the use of not only is today more likely than not to trigger a run-on sentence. Here are just a few painful illustrations:

  • For two centuries, America’s free market has not only been the source of dazzling ideas and path-breaking products, it has also been the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known. [This is the opening sentence of President Obama’s January 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed.]
    • A possible rewrite: For two centuries, America’s free market has been not only the source of dazzling ideas and path-breaking products, but also the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known.
  • Not only will sanctions do no such thing, they will unite all of Iran’s political factions under a pro-nuclear banner, making talks impossible. [From an article in the (usually) exceptionally well-edited journal Foreign Affairs, entitled Sanctions Won’t End Iran’s Nuclear Program.]
    • A possible rewrite: Not only will sanctions do no such thing; on the contrary, they will unite all of Iran’s political factions under a pro-nuclear banner, making talks impossible.
  • Not only was Ickes another friend of Douglas’s, he also disliked Wallace, with whom he had long fought turf battles inside the cabinet. [From Noah Feldman’s excellent book Scorpions, p. 192.]
    • A possible rewrite: Not only was Ickes another friend of Douglas’s; he also disliked Wallace, with whom he had long fought turf battles inside the cabinet.
  • Not only has the United States reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years, it has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency. [From a March 2012 New York Times article entitled U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence.]
    • A possible rewrite: The United States has not only reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years. It has also become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency.
  • Further, proceedings must not only be fair, they must appear fair to all who observe them. [From Justice Breyer’s opinion for the Court in Indiana v. Edwards, 554 US 164 (2008).]
    • A possible rewrite: Further, proceedings must not only be fair, but also appear fair to all who observe them.
  • [The majority] not only denies the D.C. Circuit the opportunity to assess the statute’s remedies, it refuses to do so itself. [From Chief Justice Roberts’s dissenting opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, 553 US 723 (2008).]
    • A possible rewrite: The majority not only denies the D.C. Circuit the opportunity to assess the statute’s remedies, but also refuses to conduct the assessment itself.
  • Not only did [the lower court] ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended, its express purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue. [From the Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry, 130 S. Ct. 705 (2010), staying the televised broadcast of a federal trial involving a constitutional challenge to California’s prohibition of same-sex marriage.]
    • A possible rewrite: Not only did the lower court ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended. It also made clear that its purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue.

I have never seen a coherent defense — indeed, I have never seen any defense — of not only run-on sentences. One possible explanation is that not only has begun to take on the characteristics of a subordinating conjunction, either instead of or in addition to its traditional role as a correlative conjunction. A subordinating conjunction links a dependent clause (which may contain a subject and a verb but cannot operate as a separate sentence) to an independent clause (which contains both a subject and a verb and can operate as a separate sentence). Some common subordinating conjunctions are after, although, because, since, before, until, while, unless. In the sentence After I left work, I drove to the market to pick up some milk, the opening clause (After I left work) is dependent, introduced by the subordinating conjunction After. Unlike the second clause (I drove to the market to pick up some milk), it cannot stand as a separate sentence. Because only one of the two clauses can survive as a separate sentence, we can separate the clauses with a comma without thereby creating a run-on sentence.

If not only were a subordinating conjunction, we might be able to justify omitting but also and using a mere comma to separate the first and second clauses in a sentence like I am not only a grumpmeister, I am also a happily retired lawyer. On that theory, the sentence would be the grammatical equivalent of Although I am a grumpmeister, I am also a happily retired lawyer, with not only serving the same subordinating role as although.

Though this may be a plausible explanation, I do not consider it an acceptable justification for the use of not only in a single sentence without its correlative but also and with only a comma separating the clauses. First, including not only in a clause does not make it dependent. Unlike Although I am a grumpmeister, the clause I am not only a grumpmeister can function as an independent sentence; it is not dependent on I am also a happily retired lawyer. The two clauses therefore require a linking conjunction and cannot be separated merely with a comma. Second, I have found no dictionary or usage guide that even hints at the possibility that not only may properly serve as a subordinating conjunction. If popular usage is heading in that direction, perhaps we will someday see authoritative style and usage manuals endorsing the practice. Until then, we should insist on the correlative but also as a linking device, and we should unapologetically enforce the rule against run-on sentences, condemning as a violation of that rule any not only sentence that uses a bare comma to separate two independent clauses.

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Despite this long-winded entry, I am not done with not only. I will come back to the phrase in a future posting to complain about the apparent inability of many writers to use correlative conjunctions correctly to frame structurally identical sentence parts.

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