Usage of the Word Only

Although the SBLHS blog does not often venture into issues of English composition per se, correct word usage and clear sentence construction are both key components of good style and thus worthy of occasional comment. In that spirit, this modest post highlights the improper and proper placement of the word only.

Consider, for example, the following example (Bernstein 1965, 316):

I hit him in the eye yesterday.

The adjective and adverb only can legitimately be used in eight different positions in this simple sentence, producing eight different meanings.

Only I hit him in the eye yesterday.

I only hit him in the eye yesterday.

I hit only him in the eye yesterday.

I hit him only in the eye yesterday.

I hit him in only the eye yesterday.

I hit him in the only eye yesterday.

I hit him in the eye only yesterday.

I hit him in the eye yesterday only.

Obviously, the placement of only in a sentence is significant, and clear writers will be careful to place only where it actually modifies the target word. In most cases (the final sentence above represents an exception), “only emphasizes the word or phrase that immediately follows it” (CMS 5.186). The following examples (revised sentences from a forthcoming issue of JBL) illustrate common misplacements of only and explain how the alternate placements alter a sentence’s meaning.

The technical term for the sacrificial slaughter of animals only occurs here in Judges.

The technical term for the sacrificial slaughter of animals occurs only here in Judges.

The first version states that the term in question is a Hebrew Bible hapax legomenon that appears in Judges; the second version indicates that a common term in the Hebrew Bible appears one time in Judges.

Lexical ambiguity only exists when the context does not demarcate a word’s intended sense.

Lexical ambiguity exists only when the context does not demarcate a word’s intended sense.

The first version hints that ambiguity and nothing else exists when context does not demarcate a word’s intended sense; the second version states that lexical ambiguity exists when a stated condition exists: the context does not demarcate a word’s intended sense.

Some sites only evidence partial destruction focused on the city gate.

Some sites evidence only partial destruction focused on the city gate.

The first version implies that these sites evidence only one thing: partial destruction; the second version highlights the degree of destruction evidenced in some sites: it is partial. This change in meaning is admittedly subtle, but the second version focuses the reader’s attention on the key element of the statement (the partial nature of the destruction) and thus can be judged the clearer formulation.

Jephthah’s six years are tangentially related only to the periods of the minor judges.

Jephthah’s six years are only tangentially related to the periods of the minor judges.

The first sentence states that Jephthah’s six years are related to the periods of the minor judges and to nothing else; the second, by contrast, characterizes the nature of the relation: Jephthah’s six years are not closely related to the periods of the minor judges.

Captivity is only associated with the term exile when it involves physical displacement.

Captivity is associated with the term exile only when it involves physical displacement.

The first sentence suggests an exclusive relationship between captivity and exile; that is, in the stated circumstances, captivity is associated with exile and nothing else. The second sentence is more narrowly and precisely phrased: captivity is associated with exile when one condition is met: physical displacement is involved.

As reflected in these made-up examples, a common misplacement is positioning only in front of the verb when it is intended to modify what comes after the verb, as in “only occurs” versus “occurs only,” “only exists” versus “exists only,” and “only evidence” versus “evidence only.” Whenever you wish to use the word only, then, pause for a second and ask yourself what it is modifying. Once you know the answer to that question, the proper placement should be obvious.

Work Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. 1965. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York: Atheneum.

 

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