The misplaced “only”

“The word only is probably misplaced more often than any other modifier in legal and nonlegal writing.” So says preeminent grammar-and-usage expert Bryan Garner, whose cogent lesson on the subject deserves our careful attention. Check it out here.

UPDATE: I’ve fixed the broken link.

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2 Comments

Filed under Grammar and Usage Errors

2 responses to “The misplaced “only”

  1. Laura

    Thanks for fixing the link. From what I noticed from the examples given on the site, it seems that the best placement of ‘only’ tends to be immediately before the subordinating conjunction. I suppose this makes sense because ‘only’ seems to be modifying the entire subordinate clause (excluding the first example, in which ‘only’ seems instead to be modifying a prepositional phrase). Do you know if there are exceptions to this? Or could we safely state that, when used to modify a subordinate clause, ‘only’ is best placed just before the subordinating conjunction? If so, using the subordinating conjunction as a marker for where best to place ‘only’ might help some writers to remember the author’s style tip.

    • I can’t think of an exception. But keep in mind that the misplaced only can occur even when the sentence contains no subordinating conjunction. For example: “We only have four months left on our lease.” The only should come after, not before, have, so that it appears immediately in front of the word it means to emphasize: “We have only four months left on our lease.”

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