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“Only”: The Most Insidious Misplaced Modifier

How putting the word “only” in the wrong place can confuse your readers

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty
March 1, 2013
Episode #358

Page 3 of 3

Context Matters When Placing Adverbs

To sum up, you should definitely try in written English to put “only” as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. However, be aware that doing this won’t eliminate every possible ambiguity. You have to rely on context, and if the context doesn’t make things clear enough, you may still need to rephrase to clarify. Conversely, don’t insist at all costs on precise placement of “only.” If the context makes your meaning clear, then let the rhythm of the sentence tell you where to put the “only.”

This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.

References

1. Kilpatrick, J. “If we could only get this one right.” Eugene Register-Guard. January 14, 2007.  http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=4WBWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=tfADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6697%2C2895111 (accessed February 28, 2013).
2. Kilpatrick, J. “Perspective: In praise of ‘only,’ but place it in the right place.” St. Augustine.com. January, 20, 2003. http://staugustine.com/stories/012003/opi_perp.shtml (accessed February 28, 2013).

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