English as she is writ

Part four: it's only another detour

Yes, yes, we will return to punctuation. But I’ll regale you with this subject while it’s on my mind: the use of the word ‘only’.

I have form where ‘only’ is concerned. At Virgin Publishing one of the names my endlessly creative department invented for me was ‘pedantic about only “only” man’. You’ll see why. I’d just like to comment, though, only that ‘only’ was and is far from the only topic about which I have a tendency towards pedantry.

The reason that I become exercised about the word ‘only’ is this: it is often misplaced in sentences, often with the result of producing an unintended meaning.

‘Only’ is an adjective or adverb (or the significant word in an adjectival or adverbial phrase), and as with any adjective or adverb it should be positioned adjacent to the noun or verb to which it relates. In speech, however, ‘only’ tends to wander away from its subject matter, often popping up next to an unrelated word or phrase; this matters little in speech, as the meaning of the sentence can usually be inferred from the context and from the speaker’s stresses and intonation. The problem arises when this entirely understandable laxity in speech is reproduced in writing.

This is getting somewhat technical, so I’ll resort to example. Let us imagine that we are reading a report of the aftermath of a naval mutiny. The ship’s officers have gathered to discuss what steps to take. The basic sentence reads as follows.

          The midshipman suggested that the ringleaders should be flogged.

The word ‘only’ can be inserted into this sentence in at least six different places, each one producing a very different meaning. Here are the six:

          Only the midshipman suggested that the ringleaders should be flogged.

In this case the midshipman’s was the lone voice in favour of flogging; his fellow officers took a different view.

          The only midshipman suggested that the ringleaders should be flogged.

While other ranks were each represented by several officers, there was only one midshipman present.

          The midshipman only suggested that the ringleaders should be flogged.

The midshipman did not require or demand this punishment; he merely suggested it. Perhaps he is a mild-mannered, self-effacing type; perhaps, as one of the junior officers, he felt it was not his place to be prescriptive.

          The midshipman suggested only that the ringleaders should be flogged.

This suggestion was the midshipman’s sole contribution to the debate.

          The midshipman suggested that only the ringleaders should be flogged.

Other officers, it seems, wanted all the mutineers to be punished; the midshipman’s view was the flogging should be restricted to the ringleaders.

          The midshipman suggested that the ringleaders should only be flogged.

Other officers were perhaps suggesting execution for the ringleaders; the midshipman’s view was that leniency was advisable.

I hope that the above examples demonstrate the importance of the placement of the word ‘only’ in a sentence.

As I’ve said, in speech it’s reasonable to be careless when using ‘only’. Here’s an example:

          ‘I won’t be long, I’m only walking to the shop at the end of the road.’

Strictly speaking, in the sentence above ‘only’ appears attached to ‘walking’. But that makes no sense: other than crawling on hands and knees, walking is just about the slowest method of getting to the shop, so to say ‘I won’t be long, as I’m only walking’ is curious, to say the least. What the speaker means is that he won’t be away long because his destination is nearby: ‘I won’t be long, I’m walking only to the shop at the end of the road.’

The thing is, it doesn’t matter. Anyone hearing the sentence as set out originally would understand the speaker. He won’t be away long because he’s not intending to go far.

So if it doesn’t much matter in speech, why does it matter in writing?

Because, as I’ve said before, writing and speech are two separate forms of communication. Unlike speech, writing has nothing but words: no pitch, no intonation, no useful hand gestures or facial expressions. Writing has to compensate for this by being more precise than speech. Not only that: writing is the medium used to set down words and sentences and passages that have legal weight, or that are intended to be a permanent record, or that simply need to be understood without ambiguity.

Therefore in writing it is important to take care when placing the word ‘only’ in a sentence, as its position has a profound effect on meaning.

You will be relieved to hear that I have no more to say on this subject. Punctuation next, I promise.  

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.