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Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Wed Jul 31, 2019 11:44 pm
by BonnieL
This is something I see often & it bugs me. But since I do see it often, I'm thinking the writers must be right & I'm wrong.

Recent example: "Their mechanism only allows one possible course of action."

I want to read it as: "Their mechanism allows only one possible course of action."

If I'm wrong, could someone please direct me to an explanation?

Re: Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Thu Aug 01, 2019 6:19 pm
by Phil White
You are "right", but increasingly out of step with modern usage (which means that, at some point in the future, you will become "wrong").

As a rule, the placement of "only" in sentences such as the one you quote does not render the meaning ambiguous, and the tendency is to place it in the normal adverbial position (i.e. before the verb).

There are those who would argue that "only" scopes only to the element that immediately follows it. In your example, this is "allows", so the meaning would be that the mechanism only allows, but does not, for instance demand, one course of action.

Others are more flexible in their understanding of the scope and placement of "only", arguing that it scopes to whatever it relates to, no matter where it is placed (which is a rather circular argument) or that it scopes to all that follows it.

For myself, I would be quite strict in the placement of "only" in my translation work. When speaking, I am certain that I am more lax.

Things become more problematic, of course, when "only" is placed after the element that it scopes to ("God only knows what will happen next", "Their mechanism allows one possible course of action only.").

I have been unable to find a good treatment of this from an academic perspective that is not entirely arcane. Most of what you will find is intended for learners of English and gives more or less useful guidelines that do not reflect real usage among native speakers.

Suffice it to say that you will never be "wrong" if you place the "only" immediately before the element to which it refers.

I shall carry on looking for any useful exegesis!

Re: Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Thu Aug 01, 2019 6:30 pm
by Phil White
And immediately, I come across this from Cambridge Dictionaries:
We can use only as an adverb in different positions, depending on its focus. If the subject is the focus, we put only in front position:

Only Jason knows where the key is kept.
Only a very small bed will fit in this room.

If the focus is on another part of the sentence, we usually put only in the normal mid position for adverbs (between the subject and the main verb, or after the modal verb or first auxiliary verb, or after be as a main verb):

I only go home once a month. (between subject and main verb)
She had only arrived at midnight the night before. (after the first auxiliary verb)
She’s only sixteen. (after be as a main verb)

If the focus is a whole clause, we can put only in front position:

My arm hurts but only when I try to raise it. ... tives/only
So Cambridge comes down firmly on the side of modern usage, i.e. with "only" generally placed before the main verb, irrespective of what it scopes to ("focus" in their terms). I am not sure that formal English has gone quite that far yet.

For a counter-example from a wannabe expert who clearly believes that natural language is explicable entirely in terms of logic, have a look here: ... t-of-only/
Although I generally follow the placement that results from the argument on that page, the argument itself is absurd. Language is not strictly logical. Never has been, never will be.

Re: Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Thu Aug 01, 2019 9:36 pm
by tony h
As an aside when commissioning technical specifications I do not allow the use of "only" (or "could" or "should"). They are all words that lead to messy interpretation and errors.
When asked why I comment that the phrase "I only go shopping on Wednesdays" is open to multiple interpretations. Change "I", "shopping", and "Wednesday" to obscure technical process and you lose the advantage of common sense.

Re: Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Fri Aug 23, 2019 5:18 pm
by Lancer21
If that helps, I've seen, as an example of the use of the world "only", this phrase:

She told him she loved him.

You can put "only" in any single position in this sentence, even the very first and last ones, and it'll make sense. Not the same sense every time, but it'll make sense. This might help you in your quest on the position of "only" in a sentence!

Re: Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Fri Aug 23, 2019 9:00 pm
by Erik_Kowal
You could do that in multiple places for additional nuances of meaning, e.g.

Only she told only him she loved him only.

Re: Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Fri Aug 23, 2019 9:22 pm
by trolley
Some, if not all, of those meanings can be implied without using "only" at all...try saying "she told him she loved him", using an emphasis on a different word each time you say it.

Re: Where should 'only' go?

Posted: Sun Aug 25, 2019 5:48 pm
by Lancer21
Yes, and then you can add these layers of nuance if you want! But that's something that, unfortunately enough, only works when you're talking, and not when you're writing... So, "only" is a handy little tool to compensate the loss of intonation when you're writing and not talking!