Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A coworker recently commented on the widespread misplacement of “only.”

This came as quite a revelation to us, not only because we had never considered it in detail, but also because, we soon discovered, we were frequent offenders!

Our coworker pointed out that many people place “only” in front of a verb when it’s only supposed to modify a noun or adjective.

For example:

You say four raccoons are on the deck, but I only see one.

We can guess that the speaker means he sees only one raccoon instead of four, but since he has placed “only” in front of the verb, what he’s literally connoting is that he senses the raccoon through sight alone—he doesn’t hear it, he doesn’t smell or taste it, etc.

In this instance the numbers clear up the ambiguity; it’s not very difficult to understand that the speaker means he sees only one raccoon as opposed to four even when “only” is placed in front of the verb. However, without such is not always the case, and when it's not, horrendously bloody communicative apocalypses tend to ensue.

What’s your problem, Little Mac? You only walked two miles.

This can be especially soul-shattering when one means “only” to correspond with “two miles” instead of “walked.” Thus composed, the speaker’s concern is for the method of conveyance instead of distance—should Mac have run? Drove? Ridden a pale horse?

So keep a keen eye and ear tuned toward your word placement—if you don’t, your speech will get only worse.