Eliminate the ONLY Obstacle to Clear Writing


Even for the most vigilant, experienced writers, clarity can be an elusive goal. Again and again, no matter how hard we try to eliminate any trace of ambiguity, an infuriating gap often separates what we think we are saying from what we actually say.

Consider this simple exercise. Insert the word only in the following sentence:

She told him that she loved him.

What becomes immediately clear is that you are free to place only anywhere in the sentence. First, last, and all points in between—each placement is grammatically correct. What tends to be less clear is the way those tiny shifts in placement can cause titanic (and in this case heartbreaking) shifts in meaning. And because the writer knows what she means, it’s easy to miss the implications of these shifts for readers, who know only what she says.

To illustrate this point, I’ll provide a parenthetical paraphrase after various insertions of only.

  • She told him that she loved him only. (She didn't love anyone else.)
  • She told him that only she loved him. (No one else could love him as she did.)
  • She told only him that she loved him. (She didn't say it to the other guys she loved.)
  • She only told him that she loved him.  (She didn't mean it; she actually hated him.)
  • She told him only that she loved him. (She didn't tell him that he had bad breath.)
  • She told him that she only loved him. (But she didn't really like him.)
  • Only she told him that she loved him. (No one else ever loved the poor guy.)

In the heat of composition, especially when working under a deadline, writers can lose track of this four-letter word—with potentially catastrophic results for the two lovers.

Fortunately, Writing Reviser can help you avoid such catastrophes by highlighting potential problems with frequently misplaced modifiers, whether they be single words like only or relative clauses, dangling phrases, and other problematic constructions.

And don’t only check out only the Writing Reviser. Be sure explore the entire suite of products in our Writing Navigator:

Also, take a look at our SAS Writing Reviser Add-on for Google Docs or our Microsoft Office Add-in. It's the only tool you’ll need to master the use of only.



About Author

Tim McBride

Supervisor, Educational Multimedia Writing

Tim McBride has degrees from Rochester Institute of Technology and NC State University, where he taught English for several years. His first book of poetry, The Manageable Cold, was published recently by TriQuarterly Press at Northwestern University. He works as a writer and an editor on Curriculum Pathways. He lives in Cary, NC, with an American pit bull terrier named Charlie McCarthy and a Catahoula hog dog named Junk.

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