Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The elusive 'misplaced only'

When I was writing my Boston Globe column, I heard regular complaints about the alleged misplacement of only in a sentence, as when I wrote "you could only murder your victim once." Reading up on the issue, I decided that this peeve is so popular because advice-givers enjoy ringing the changes on made-up sentences that supposedly show the pitfalls of only: "Only John hit Peter in the nose, John hit Peter only in the nose, John only hit Peter in the nose," and so on. (For a very recent example, see Merrill Perlman here.)

But anyone can make up evidence. Several times, I asked readers to give me an example of a truly misleading only that was not in a hypothetical example, but actually in print. In 10 years, no one ever did. Eventually, I spotted one myself, in the Wall Street Journal: "Current tests can detect only what type of virus or bacteria people are infected with after they get sick." (As I discovered at the time, this was apparently an editor's attempt to reword the writer's original "Current tests can only detect.")

Two years later, I've found another misplaced only. It was in Thomas Friedman's column in the New York Times Nov. 13, about making tablet computers cheap enough for the poorest Indians to buy. He wrote:
If Indians could only purchase tablets made in the West, the price points would be so high they'd never spread here.
This was a garden-path sentence for me; First time through, I read it with only modifying "purchase tablets made in the West." But no -- Friedman doesn't mean "if they could only buy (some tablets from the West)," he means "if they could buy tablets only (from the expensive West)."

So yes, occasionally the word only is confusingly misplaced. But two examples in 10 years -- one of them created by an editor needlessly moving the only -- hardly amounts to an epidemic.

Fowler, by the way, was scathing about the only fetishists -- "pedants" who meddled where no improvement was needed, "turning English into an exact science or an automatic machine." But he's not alone in his skepticism. My only enlightenment came from Bergen and Cornelia Evans's Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957).

In most cases only is a sentence adverb and qualifies the entire statement. When used in this way its natural position is before the verb, as in but now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. This word order is standard literary English and should be followed unless there is a very good reason for placing only somewhere else. ... It is not true that when only stands between the subject and the verb it qualifies the verb alone. One might as well argue that never qualifies saw rather than the full statement in I never saw a purple cow. 

And for the 21st-century linguist's version, we have this excerpt from a Geoff Pullum post:
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. Ian Fleming's title You Only Live Twice was not copy-edited to You Live Only Twice. Why not? Because he knows how to write, and he didn't let an idiot copy-editor change his writing into mush, that's why.
Enough said? I hope so, because there are potatoes to peel and pecans to chop. Happy Thanksgiving!


Jonathon said...

I had this argument with my boss and a coworker a few months back. I argued that it is virtually never confusing or misleading and that you have to work to find the ambiguous reading. They retorted that even if misreading is unlikely, it doesn't hurt to change it.

Your example shows that it occasionally does hurt to change it. And even if it doesn't hurt, it still takes time to spot the only, determine whether it's allegedly misplaced, determine where to move it to, and enter the change. It's a waste of both time and money, that virtually never improves the text and, even when it doesn't alter the intended meaning, often makes it sound clunkier.

For the record, I know I've seen truly ambiguous onlys once or twice, though sadly I don't appear to have saved them.

Marc Leavitt said...

I only want to say that the Onlyists are a subcategory of peevologists. Only they would take umbrage at my comment.

The Ridger, FCD said...

What peevers refuse to admit is that sentences do not exist in isolation. Context almost always disambiguates, and that includes simply knowing what the sentence is aboutl

Gregory Lee said...

Pullum's remark about "only" is drawn from James McCawley's work, in, e.g., "The Syntactic Phenomena of English". Potential ambiguities arise whenever "only" is attached to a constituent with more than one possible focus, as it almost always is. At the end of Chapter 18 of McCawley's just mentioned book, he gives this exercise:
4. Say why the following sentence is unambiguous with regard to the scope of "only":
Only by Mary has John been denounced.