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Who moved her 'only'?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 3, 2009 05:33 PM

One favorite language fetish, even among the more level-headed usage writers, is an obsession with placement of only -- often accompanied by an insistence that putting only in the wrong place can cause tragic misunderstandings.

My theory is that this nit persists because writers love to make up the horrible examples with which they buttress the rule. Language writer James Kilpatrick, for instance, has offered as evidence these unlikely utterances:

(1) Only John hit Peter in the nose, (2) John hit Peter only in the nose, (3) John only hit Peter in the nose, and (4) John hit only Peter in the nose.

Several times, over the years, I've challenged readers to show me an example of a truly misleading only in print, not in a made-up example, and nobody has yet responded. But over this morning's coffee, I stumbled onto one myself, in a Wall Street Journal story by Jennifer Corbett Dooren. The story, which discussed improvements in predicting which non-symptomatic people are about to get sick, noted:

Current tests can detect only what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick.

OK, what this sentence wants to mean is that tests can detect the pathogens in people "only after they get sick." It's genuinely misleading, thanks to the long stretch between only and the clause it modifies; you have to revise your understanding of the sentence when you're well on the way down its garden path.

But there may be a twist. My Spidey editing sense, honed by years of service on the copy desk, is tingling with suspicion that this is an editor's error, not the writer's.*

Consider the way many of us would naturally have written the sentence:

Current tests can only detect what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick.

No problem, right? But say you're an only-sensitive editor: You want that only to "snuggle up" (in Kilpatrick's phrase) to the word or phrase it modifies. Usually, that involves moving it rightward: "I only want seltzer" becomes "I want only seltzer." And so the editor duly moves only to the right of the verb.

But in this case, that's not far enough. If the only isn't in its natural position ("can only detect"), where it alerts us to wait for the conclusion ("after they get sick"), then it has to come much later, like this:

Current tests can detect what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with only after they get sick.

This doesn't really work either, though. It sounds as if it's making a positive statement about what tests can do, then it pulls a 180 on the reader four-fifths of the way through the sentence.

So let me implore, once more: Let's stop worrying about only. Usually, it's fine just where it is. As a linguist would say -- in this case, Geoff Pullum, on Language Log -- "The word only is frequently positioned so that it attaches to the beginning of a larger constituent than its focus (and thus comes earlier), and that is often not just permissible but better."

Not just permissible but better. Or, as we sometimes remember to say on the copy desk: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.


*I've e-mailed the author to ask whether this is the case.
[Update: Jennifer Corbett Dooren confirms that her original read "Current tests can only detect," and that the change came somewhere during the editing process.]

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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