‘Only’ Love Can Break Your Heart

Sam: "Be you the mean hombre that's a-hankerin' for a heap of trouble, stranger? Well, be ya?"

Sometimes I would like to channel my Lingua Franca colleague Geoffrey Pullum. Not because of his support and sage counsel, which I have long valued, but because of the way he is perpetually ready, willing, and able to fulminate. I have never met Geoff face to face, and I sometimes imagine him as a sort of linguistic Yosemite Sam, constantly being provoked into a near-apoplectic rage by some dim editor or prescriptivist.

The trouble is, I haven’t really had anything to fulminate against. Until now. Last week I wrote a piece for an online New York Times series called “Draft.” My topic was the comma–use and misuse of–and it got a lot of reaction. This included at least two people who e-mailed me to say they were shocked–shocked!–that an English professor would deign to use the phrase a lot. That and the general run of comments baffled, bemused, amused, and instructed me, in roughly equal measure. But several people made a particular criticism that awakened and aroused my inner Pullum. Finally!

It related to my statement: “One particular comma use is consistently and pretty much only found in The New Yorker.

I should have known there’d be trouble when a Times editor wanted to re-word it so that only came after found, instead of before. I said uh-uh, and sure enough, a lot of many readers complained about the word order. One of the milder correspondents put the nub of the matter in the form of a rhetorical question:

“Shouldn’t ‘only’ in the above follow ‘found,’ so that it directly precedes what ‘only’ refers to?”

NOOOOOOOOOO, ya ornery critter! All you should have to do is read, and heed, the resulting version: “One particular comma use is consistently and pretty much found only in The New Yorker.” I can hardly bear to type it. The original sentence is designed around the pairing of the adverbs: we start off with consistently and ascend to only, the emphasis on that word set up by the preceding adverbial phrase pretty much. With the suggested change, rhythm, meaning and syntax are all shot to hell.

I know why so many people had the same nonsensical and I mean, I mean, I mean STUPID reaction.  It stems from the fact that only can be both an adverb and an adjective —”Jeff was the only person who came”—and that its very versatility can create ambiguity. (A conventional adverb like slowly can go before, after or in the middle of a verb, depending on the desired emphasis.) This dreaded prospect led to an only-before-the-word-it-modifies “rule” that appears, or appeared, in a lot (I’m keeping it this time, damn it) of writing and grammar texts. Such books often illustrate the “problem” by giving a sample sentence of x words and showing how it can mean x+1 different things by placing only in the various slots. For example, I asked my brother to eat dinner.

  • Only I: No one else asked him.
  • only asked: as opposed to demanding.
  • only my: didn’t ask anyone else.
  • only brother: I have no other male siblings.
  • only to: didn’t ask him to do anything else.
  • only eat: as opposed to drinking dinner or doing God knows what else with it.
  • only dinner: no other meals allowed!
  • dinner only: no other activity allowed!

It’s a fun party game, but in the real world, ambiguity is almost never a problem. Plus, we—that is, human English speakers—seem to be hard-wired to put only before a verb. We really, really want to say I only went to one game when we mean, I went to only one game, or God only knows what I’d be without you when we mean Only God knows what I’d be without you (shout-out to the great Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys). But when we put the only where it wants to go, tsk-tsking ensues.

As is often the case, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (read from my iPhone) has words of wisdom, observing, “The placement of only in a sentence has been a source of studious commentary since the 18th century, most of it intended to prove by force of argument that prevailing standard use is wrong.”

All things being equal, only should go right in front of the word it modifies. But all things are only rarely equal.

Got that, ya varmints?



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