Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Only the Lonely

Q. I often have trouble placing the word only in a sentence. Any hints?

A. You and millions of others. Only can be used as an adjective (an only child) or as a conjunction (I would have stayed, only they told me to go), but it's the adverb only which can lead to unintended consequences. The rule is that it must be placed as close as possible to the term it modifies. Check these examples to see how position affects meaning:

• Only my brother buys pork rinds. [No one else in the family]
• My only brother buys pork rinds. [I don't have another brother--adjective]
• My brother only buys pork rinds. [He doesn't eat them]
• My brother buys only pork rinds. [Nothing else in the shopping bag]
• My brother buys pork rinds only. [Nothing else in the shopping bag]

The most likely meaning is the first, so only is placed right in front of my brother to make that clear. Of course, depending on the brother/sister count in your family, the second sentence could be a contender, too; context would be the deciding factor.

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