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The Only Truth
A few readers took issue with the title of last week’s article, “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” They said “Only”
should go after “Matters,” not before. To which we reply: ugh. “Pronunciation Matters Only When You Speak” is too stilted, too
mannered. Our title places only where you usually find it: before the verb.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
There is no likelihood of misinterpreting “Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak.” So the only possible objection to it is that it is
against the rules. But what rules? Yes, some authorities insist on placing only next to the word or phrase it modifies (“When You
Speak”). But other scholars deem this practice unnecessary if the meaning is clear.
There is no question that placing only before the verb can sometimes create confusion. The copy editor Claire Kehrwald Cook explains: “If
you write We are only ordering metal desks because they are more durable than wooden ones, readers may think you’re ordering only one type
of furniture when you mean you’re ordering it for only one reason. So take care with your onlys.” But Cook also says, “When only falls into its idiomatic place without causing ambiguity, let it stand.”
Writers have been placing only before the verb at least since Shakespeare (“Though to itself it only live and die”). “She Only Loves Me When I’m There” was a hit song in 2014, eighty years after “I Only Have Eyes for You” topped the charts
in 1934. They Only Kill Their Masters is the title of a controversial movie from 1972. “It only hurts when I laugh” is the punch line
to a classic old joke. If you ended that joke with “It hurts only when I laugh,” people would be amused all right, but not in the way you might
Let’s see what the experts have said down through the years:
“Often, to be sure, clarity and idiom are better served by bringing only to a more forward position … Certainly it is always better to
avoid an air of fussiness.” —Bill Bryson, 2003
“It is torturing the sentence and the listener to make a point of saying He died only yesterday.” —Wilson Follett, 1966
“Its natural position is before the verb … This word order is standard literary English.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957
“For He only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still
use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.” —H.W. Fowler, 1926
We hope those quotations promote clearer understanding of a questionable “rule” that, if followed blindly, only encourages ham-fisted pedantry.
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