I’ve seen it time and time again, in manuscripts I’m editing and even books I’m reading.
Such a small word, such a pesky problem!
The word “only” conveys a powerful sentiment. “Only” can mean the difference between “one more cookie” and “only one more cookie.”
“Only” can even change “the president” to “only the president.”
That one word can clarify and pierce with precision, but so often I see it misused, so I’m here to set the record straight.
And only to set the record straight.
Only One Rule
“Only” belongs nearest the noun or verb to which it refers.
Sounds simple, right?
Harder to put into practice. Because “only” is a modifier, it can modify either a noun or a verb, which means identifying the referent’s status as either a noun or a verb is the first step to determining the right position of “only.”
Only as an adjective
As an adjective, only tells us that there is either just one, very few, or no others. Note its position in these sentences:
That lamp was the only light source in the living room.
Writer is the only title that is important to me.
Only as an adverb
As an adverb, only hints that something is limited to some places, people, things, amounts, activities, and so on:
This pen is only made in America.
Only a few hundred people graduate with that grade point average.
Only can also mean ‘simply,’ as in this example:
She’s only joking.
Only for Dialogue
When writing dialogue, your character can use only with just for added emphasis to mean ‘very recently’ or ‘almost not.’ For example:
They’d only just moved into their new house last March. (very recently)
The church spire had survived the earthquake of ten years before, but only just. (It almost didn’t survive the earthquake.)
How to Know Where to Place Only
If an adjective, use “only” in front of the noun it modifies (or one) but before another adjective or a number:
Is that your only notebook?
He was the only one who could juggle in the village.
That was the only medium skirt left in that style. (not “the medium only skirt”)
Only four fans watched the game. (not “the four only fans”)
If “only” is functioning as an adverb, identify what it is modifying by finding the focus. For instance, if the subject is the focus, we put only in front position:
Only Susanna helps with the laundry.
Only a very large couch will accomodate all of the kids.
If the focus is on another part of the sentence, we usually put only in between the subject and the main verb:
He’s only sixteen.
I leave college and go home only once a month.
If the focus is a whole clause, we can again put only in front position:
My arm hurts, but only when I try to raise it.
Now that you’ve read the “only” so many times it’s starting to look misspelled, time for a quick test! Where would you move “only” in the following sentences?
- The grocery store will only hire two new employees this year.
- The hurricane only damaged three blocks before sweeping back out to sea.
- The conference will only be hosted in Atlanta if the venue can confirm the dates.
- only two new employees
- damaged only three blocks
- only if the venue can confirm the dates
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