Saturday, February 20, 2010

No moaning over 'only'

An inquiry from a reader about the placement of only in the most recent installment of “Pulp Diction”:

Lovin' the serial. How do you feel about the misplaced “only”? Shouldn't it come after “afford”? I know it's in a quote, but it's a copy editor, for goodness' sake. : )

“See this?” He held up a battered Associated Press Stylebook. “At the end, they could only afford one copy. Kept it locked in the editor’s office. You had to file a form to look at it. When they were all gone, I snagged it. Now it’s mine.”

As the reader conceded, the usage was in dialogue, and I will go so far as to say that nearly everyone, copy editors included, is casual about the placement of only in speech, and often in writing, despite the only fetish of some usage mavens.

Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe has addressed this issue repeatedly. Here’s what she had to say in Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right:*

“Usage writers love to ring the changes on only, comparing ‘Only I want a cup of tea,’ ‘I only want a cup of tea,’ ‘I want only a cup of tea,’ and so on. In the wild, however, only is almost never truly ambiguous. And too-strict observance of the rule creates an unnatural, overemphatic construction: ‘I want only a drink of water.’ In some cases, too, only modifies a phrase or an entire sentence, and shouldn’t be moved: ‘We were only trying to help.’

“Fowler 1926 blamed the only fetish on pedants who wanted to make English ‘an exact science or an automatic machine.’ Yet in 2009, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick was still writing an annual column on the importance of only. All this is a waste of time, as Fowler said it would be.”

Add this fetish to your list of rules that are not really rules and allow yourself to worry about more substantial issues.

*If you missed my post from last October on Ms. Freeman’s delightful book, here’s a link to it.


If a reader of this blog should order a copy of the book from, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.


  1. One has the option of doing something correctly or nearly correctly with no difference in cost or effort. But nearly pays a smaller dividend.

  2. One also has the option of attempting hypercorrection, with no gain in intelligibility for the expenditure of energy and attention, and at the potential cost of overlooking actual errors.

  3. ONLY on this blog do I find such a stream of expertise. ;)

  4. Also:

    And I can ONLY be thankful for that. :)

  5. John McIntyre: You are of course correct -- the picky grammarian is the pedant’s pedant. But I (we) can do them a service by maintaining high standards so they can concentrate on important stuff.

  6. This is a serious concern. I was racking my brain over such an outlandish exclusion. "They could only afford one copy"? How can one afford something but not have the ability or option to purchase it? They could afford it but not read it? Afford it but not look at it? That "only" was making me insane!


    English is so not the language to be inflexible with.

  7. The copyeditor who mentored me used to get a little irritated (she was very patient) with people who didn't understand that the "rules" don't always apply. She often emphasized the guideline "when misreading is likely." Like Tom, I am not quite seeing how one might misread "only afford one copy."

  8. Jan Freeman also has an irresistible blog, Throw Grammar from the Train, which you can find here:

  9. As the song goes, "I have eyes only for you."