Monday, April 02, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Only The Lonely

Sometimes it seems that only only causes trouble. Because the adverb only can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it is put, you have to be careful where you put it. Consider how the placement of only affects the meaning of the following examples:

Dictators respect only force; they are not moved by words.

Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it.

She picked up the receiver only when he entered, not before.

She only picked up the receiver when he entered; she didn’t dial the number.

In general, it’s a good policy to put only next to the word or words it modifies. Sticklers insist that this rule for placement of only should always be followed, but sometimes it sounds more natural for only to come earlier in the sentence, and if the context is sufficiently clear, there’s no chance of being misunderstood. Thus, the rule requires you to say
We can come to an agreement only if everyone is willing to compromise.
But you can say more naturally, with slightly different emphasis and with no risk of misunderstanding,
We can only come to an agreement if everyone is willing to compromise.

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