Watch Where You Put That!

by Cherie Tucker

The placement of the word only in a sentence can make all the difference in what your reader thinks you mean.  Look at this one:
We only heard two guys singing last night.
Does that mean you heard them but didn’t see them last night?  Or might it mean that last night not more than two guys were singing?
It’s easy to say I only and then finish the sentence.  Unfortunately, that’s a habit we frequently fall into in both speaking and writing.  You know what you mean, but in your writing, the placement of that word could change the meaning of the sentence.

Consequently, whenever you see that word only while doing your first edit, go back and check whether you should place it closer to the word you are talking about.  

He only likes white bread.  (He doesn’t love it.)

He likes only white bread.  (Don’t give him whole wheat or rye.)
Look what happens to the meaning of the sentence The men may remove their coats when you move the word only.
Only the men may remove their coats. (Women, keep yours on.)

The men may only remove their coats. (Nothing else, please.)

The men may remove only their coats. (Ties, shoes, and pants must stay on.)

The men may remove their only coats.  (That will help them last.)

The men may remove their coats only.  (See number three above.)

As I’ve said before, your words control the reader.  Putting only as close as possible to the word it modifies will keep your meaning clear and not turn the interpretation of your prose over to the reader.  Only you get to determine what you said.


Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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