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TWTS: It's only an adverb

Some grammarians say “only” is the most misplaced adverb in the English language.

We’re only telling you this because we love you. Or maybe we’re telling you this only because we love you. Maybe we’re telling you only this because we love you.

Actually, we just want you to think about the word “only.” Also, we love you.

Adverbs can modify multiple parts of speech including verbs, other adverbs, adjectives, even entire clauses. They’re also mobile. Look at how the adverb “quickly” jumps around in these sentences:

“She quickly wrote the email.”

“She wrote the email quickly.”

“Quickly, she wrote the email.”

In this case, it doesn’t make any difference where “quickly” is placed, because the meaning of the sentence stays the same. In the case of “only,” grammarians argue that placement does matter.

We use “only” to limit the scope of something. Grammarians will say it should be next to whatever is being limited. For example, say you want to buy coffee, but you forgot your wallet. Your friend Sam gives you some money, but it’s not enough for coffee.

Later on, when you find yourself going through caffeine withdrawal, you tell someone else, “I wanted to buy coffee, but Sam only gave me two dollars.”

You’re unhappy about the amount Sam gave you, not the fact that he gave it to you, as opposed to lending it or something else. However, since the money is what’s limited, grammarians would have you say, “I wanted to buy coffee, but Sam gave me only two dollars.”

That’s not to say that the original statement doesn’t make sense. The truth is that context usually tells us what “only” limits – in the case of your coffee craving, it’s money.

Occasionally though, particularly in writing, “only” can be ambiguous. The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary offer these two sentences as an example:

“Dictators respect only force; they’re not moved by words.”

“Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it.”

In the first sentence, “only” modifies “force.” That tells us that force is what dictators respect. The second sentence tells us how dictators feel about force. They respect it, but they don’t worship it.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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