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Only in the Right Position

2cac48e4476d82244d16fbd56145a6af.500x500x1I wouldn’t change one syllable of the beautiful lyrics that Al Dubin wrote (to Harry Warren’s music) for the huge 1934 hit that the Flamingos turned into a doo-wop classic in 1959:

You are here, so am I;
Maybe millions of people go by;
But they all disappear from view,
And I only have eyes for you.

The lyrics bring a tear to my eye. And I am simply amazed that many people hold beliefs about grammar that would condemn that last line as a solecism.

What these people believe is (if you will forgive my putting a little technical terminology into their mouths) that the focusing adverb only must be at the left-hand edge of the constituent that is its focus. Only (when it is roughly synonymous with merely) focuses attention on the uniqueness of some entity or the limits of some quantity. In I had only five dollars, for example, the focus is five: The sentence stresses that I had $5 and no more. Hence, say the purists (illogically), it should never be expressed as I only had five dollars, with only before the verb.

The people who believe this twaddle are not dumb. They include a brilliant semanticist I know (I must be careful not to identify either his sex or the Palo Alto-area university at which he works; heaven forfend that his colleagues should finger him as a closet prescriptivist). And logicians always tend to hold the same opinion: Logicians have a nasty habit of imagining that their grasp of formal reasoning lends papal-style infallibility to their cockamamie ideas about how people ought to use English. They treat empirical counterevidence from usage like something nasty that the cat dragged in.

Even the magisterial Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU, as we grammarians reverently call it) talks in terms of “problem of the misplaced only.” I assume that its editors intend invisible scare quotes to surround “misplaced” and “mistake” throughout, because the weight of the evidence they marshal to show that it is not a mistake is massive. Every noteworthy author down through the years since the 17th century writes sentences in which only occurs before the verb (after the subject or after the first auxiliary) when its focus is some constituent following the verb.

Take John Dryden, for example. He’s the the picky-picky 17th-century critic responsible for the myth that clauses shouldn’t end with a preposition. Yet in the same 1672 essay he was happy to write I will only add this in the defence of our present Writers, meaning “I will add only this in the defense of our present writers.” Only precedes the verb, yet the focus (the direct object this) follows it.

But 90 years later, as if Dryden’s own usage counted for nothing, we find Robert Lowth’s famous Short Introduction to English Grammar insisting that I only spake three words is an error because “the intention of the speaker manifestly requires, `I spake only three words.’” Of course, I agree that I only spoke three words is ambiguous, while I spoke only three words is not. (The former has three meanings: [i] “Producing a three-word utterance is all I did”; [ii] “The only thing I did with regard to the words was speak them”; and [iii] “The number of words I uttered was no more than three.”)

But sentences with multiple meanings are not attributable to ignorance and error. Ambiguity is ubiquitous. And expert users of English clearly don’t give a fig about avoiding it by forcing only to be adjacent to its focus. Look at The Importance of Being Earnest, to take an arbitrary example of excellent writing. Most instances of only in the play are irrelevant (it occurs frequently as a modifier within a noun phrase, as in The only really safe name is Ernest), but I found three cases of the focusing adverb (I underline only and its focus in each):

  1. I have only been married once.
  2. Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.
  3. I only met you today for the first time.

Wilde puts focusing only before the verb one hundred percent of the time!

The purists’ quixotic project of stamping out ambiguity due to such word-order choices is ridiculous (even though avoiding unwanted ambiguity in context is not). Even quite conservative usage guides accept that. The literary evidence shows, overwhelmingly, that English freely permits only before the verb phrase containing its focus.

If you are desperate to crush out all possibility of ambiguity, you might like to replace I only have eyes for you by “You are the unique entity that commands attention in my visual field.” But for heaven’s sake don’t alter Al Dubin’s natural and beautiful phrasing on the grounds that it embodies some kind of grammatical mistake, because it doesn’t.

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