only: misplaced modifier

The adverb only should be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies in a sentence. Consider the following two sentences:

Example 1: The band only sang five songs at the concert.

Example 2: The band sang only five songs at the concert.

Example 1 indicates that the band sang, rather than played, five songs. The sentence in Example 2 indicates that the band sang five songs, rather than eight or ten or any other number. There is a distinct difference in meaning. However, it is common for only to be misplaced in a sentence, making the meaning of the sentence ambiguous.

A similar error was made with the popular old song called “I Only Have Eyes for You.” The writers of this song would have made the message clearer by writing “I Have Eyes for Only You.” But then again, the song just wouldn’t sound the same had the lyrics been written to be grammatically correct. Regardless, when using only in your own speaking and writing, remember to place it as close as possible to the word you are modifying so the meaning of the sentence is clear to the audience.

Posted in Grammar.

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  1. SFLBIB says:

    One of my friends, who is known to eat for a hobby, once said to our group at dinner, “I only ate three meals today.”

    I remarked, “Note the placement of the adverb “only”. Only one person caught the joke.

    I don’t know where these would go, so I’ll include them here:

    Sign on a restaurant door: “Shoes and shirts required to eat here” under which someone had scrawled: “But sox may eat wherever they choose.”

    A sign in another restaurant window said, “Wanted: Man to wash dishes and two waitresses.”

  2. Al says:

    Here’s an ambiguously placed modifier that could get one towed away for guessing wrong: A sign in a hospital parking garage says “Patient parking only on second level.” Is it possible that this is an inventive usage, an attempt to imply both possible meanings by placing “only” between the two places where its meaning would be clear? Using it simultaneously in both places where it would be unambiguous does not deliver both meanings clearly. If both meanings apply, how could one state that most succinctly?

  3. ping lee says:

    How would you interpret the following sentence:
    “Legal research can be done using paper sources only.”

    Fact: legal research can be done using paper sources or computerized formats thses days.

    Is the above statement True or False given the fact?

    What about, i.e., True or False?
    “Legal research can only be doner using paper sources.”

    “Only paper sources can be used to conduct legal research.”

    If you can, please explain/comment on the use of “ONLY” as a modifier in each of the “scenarios”.

    Thank you.

    • Rachel V. says:

      I would say that all the sentences mean the same thing: that paper sources, and only paper sources, are allowed for legal research.

  4. Jordan says:

    Of course, saying “the reason is because” is another English error.

  5. I think the reason this doesn’t cause confusion in spoken English, is because you can show which word the “only” is modifying, by putting emphasis on it.