Grammar AdviceGrammar, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2006

If Only Writers Put the Word "Only" in the Right Place

Read the following two sentences quickly. They mean the same thing, right? Now go back down and read them again, more carefully this time.

"Susan only submitted the manuscript of her novel to three literary agencies."

"Susan submitted the manuscript of her novel to only three literary agencies."

Ever hear of a "misplaced modifier"? The term encompasses many possible grammatical errors, but essentially, a misplaced modifier is a descriptive word or phrase that is not placed next to the noun or other word it modifies, thereby creating either awkwardness in reading or incorrect syntax, or both. In this article I'm going to briefly tell you about one of the most common examples, one that is a pet peeve of mine and of copy editors everywhere: the use and misuse of the simple word "only."

This is one of those grammar rules that most people (including yours truly) very often don't follow in speech or in informal writing. In speech, the incorrect usage is probably even more common than the correct usage: ask yourself if, when speaking, you would be more likely to say the first sentence or the second sentence above. The first, right? Be honest, now. For this reason, it is an error that needs editing in every single manuscript that comes across my desk, even those by the most experienced and published authors. "Too picky," you might say—but remember: formal, professional writing isn't the same as speech, and a construction that might not sound awkward in speech or look awkward in an e-mail isn't necessarily the most effective way to frame a sentence in fiction (or in any other formal writing). Being "picky" sometimes means being a professional.

The sentences above, if you read them out loud, might have the same meaning to your ear. But a closer look on the page reveals that their meanings are vastly different. The most important thing to keep in mind when writing—after, you know, stuff such as spelling words correctly and creating an effective plot and characters—is to never confuse your readers. This doesn't mean you should never intentionally mislead the reader of your mystery novel into thinking the wrong person did it, or leave ambiguous the ending of your thriller in order to leave room for a sequel. It means that the meaning you are trying to convey within each word, each sentence, is never in question when you don't intend it to be. If it is, readers become distracted from the world of your book (or story, or essay), and you've lost their attention.

The first sentence in my example, "Susan only submitted the manuscript of her novel to three literary agencies," does not convey the author's intended meaning. Why? Because "only" precedes the word "submitted," which is not the word it is meant to modify. As written, the sentence tells us that Susan did nothing but submit her manuscript to three literary agencies. She didn't submit it to publishers. She didn't enter it into writing contests. She didn't have it bound and engraved. (Don't do that, by the way, if you're planning to send your own manuscript to anyone.) In fact, if we're reading the sentence very strictly, she didn't do anything else at all but submit. She didn't even get out of bed and brush her teeth that morning. She "only submitted."

Now look at the second sentence, "Susan submitted the manuscript of her novel to only three literary agencies." Aha! Do you get the difference? Susan submitted to "only three" literary agencies. This construction leaves no room for doubt. She didn't submit to any fewer or any more agencies than three. Period. This construction is not only clearer, it emphasizes more strongly the sentence's significance to whatever story it's a part of: namely, that Susan didn't submit her manuscript to very many agencies. This simple rearrangement of words eliminates ambiguity and improves clarity and specificity.

But it's not only about clarity. After all, most people would probably understand what you meant if you wrote the first sentence. But isn't there something a little more elegant, a little more professional about the second sentence? If you agree, do this exercise. It won't take you long to complete it, and your computer will help. Go through your entire manuscript right now, and do a global search for the word "only." Make sure, in each instance it appears, that it's in the proper place within the sentence. If not, fix it. Now was that so hard? And I guarantee that after doing this exercise, my little tip will stick in your mind, and the next work you write will use "only" correctly much more often. But since, as I said, it's a mistake that's generally accepted in speech, it's a mistake easily overlooked in writing. So always keep your eyes open for it.

The proper placement of the word is not always as clear-cut as it is in my examples at the top, and there may be instances where moving "only" to immediately before or after the word it modifies makes your sentence read awkwardly. As always with grammar "rules," use your judgment and tailor this one to your own work and to each sentence within that work. But if you ever see that the sentence's clarity is in doubt, this is an easy way to eliminate that doubt while making your writing that much more professional and elegant.
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