The “Only” Problem

“Only” is the most commonly misplaced modifier.  Depending where you put it in a sentence, it changes the meaning entirely.

Here is a basic sentence:  I read the newspaper.  Now let’s play around with “only.”

1. Only I read the newspaper.  This says no one else in this house reads it; I am the only one who does.

2. I only read the newspaper.  I don’t do anything else with it: I don’t recycle it, I don’t line the birdcage with it, I don’t put it in the bottom of the cat’s litter box.

3. I read only the newspaper.  I don’t read books or magazines or anything else, just the newspaper.

4. I read the only newspaper.  This town has just one newspaper, so that’s the one I read.

5. I read the newspaper only. This has the same meaning as #3.

The trick with all modifiers is to put them right next to the word about which you want to give more information.


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2 responses to “The “Only” Problem

  1. Jan

    Love this. I used to explain this and other misplaced modifiers to my students, only a few paid attention.


    • Jan, it fascinates me how often I see “only” in the wrong place in so-called professional writing—magazines and newspapers. But all the editors have disappeared, it seems.

      When our son was in 7th grade, his English teacher called me up, laughing uproariously, to read me a sentence Jonathan had written: “A piece of blue paper caught his eye dangling out of the desk drawer.” Grizzly, isn’t it?


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