Only a Word or Two

Posted: Jan 10, 2006 10:56 AM

Let us suppose that two schoolboys are having a playground altercation. It begins with the Insult Mild. It proceeds by degrees to the Imprecation Serious and finally to the Curse Unforgivable. Then the vocal combatants resort to blows. Other playmates join the horrid affray.

In the principal's office, it appears that Nino is in deep doo-doo. Witnesses say he struck the first blow. He offers a Plea in Abatement. The annotated record reveals that:

  • Only Nino struck David in the nose. Other assailants may have hit the complainant in the eye or belly, but only Nino caused the bloody nose.

  • Nino only struck David in the nose. He did not cut him. He only struck him.

  • Nino struck only David in the nose. As the unseemly brawl developed, Nino may have struck John and Stephen elsewhere in their anatomy, but David was the only one he struck in the nose.

  • Nino struck David only in the nose. Or to put it another way, he struck David in the nose only.

    All clear? Yes, in this space the New Year begins again with a reminder on the proper placement of "only." No little trick of prose composition will do more to improve our mastery of English style. It's the easiest trick in the bag. This is the whole shebang:

    Snuggle your "only" next to the word or phrase it modifies!

    In the editorial enclaves of The New York Times, some writers have yet to master the trick.

    In January: "In the longer run, this election can only be counted as a success if it helps lead to a unified Iraq that avoids civil war ..." The writer might have considered, "... a success only if it helps lead to a unified Iraq."

    In March: "Although Congress has only authorized research, everyone knows the military tap is hard to wrench closed once the research money flows." The sense of that metaphor might have been sharpened by, "Although Congress has authorized only research, everyone knows ..."

    In July, in a feature on Cape Cod: "Inside the tiny theater, actors can only enter from stage right because the women's room is so close to stage left ..." The actors can enter only from stage right.

    In October, in an op-ed column quoting a Texas woman with doubts about the president's nomination of the unknown Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court: "He is asking us to have faith in things unseen. We only have that kind of faith in God." She may have meant that she has "only that kind of faith," but more probably she meant "faith only in God." Placement counts!

    Horrid Examples abound. The Washington Post let us know in November that the National Park Service is proposing to take the grizzly bear off the list of endangered species. The delisting proposal, however, "only covers a 6-million acre habitat." The news was not that the proposal "only covers," but that it "covers only."

    In her "Ask Amy" column, Amy Dickinson reassured a reader who was worried about getting tested for HIV: "One HIV test on the market only involves a finger prick, and results are available in 20 minutes." Remember the modifier snuggle! The test involves only!

    If this reminder causes you to consider your every "only," you will have made my New Year a happy one. And not only my New Year.