Where to put only…

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Have you ever wondered where to put only, the adverb? There’s a rule for that!

This week I was working on a website for a client. Things were going relatively smoothly until the boss took a phrase I’d written and moved around the word “only.” To protect confidentiality I can’t repeat it here but let me produce something close.

Imagine I had written:

Chocolate chip cookies will be available to everyone only through the Central Bakeshop while the renovations are being conducted. 

And imagine she had changed it to:

Chocolate chip cookies will only be available to everyone through the Central Bakeshop while the renovations are being conducted. 

Here’s why her change was less than ideal: the adverb “only” should always be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. I grant you that the second sentence sounds more colloquial —more like we speak. But here’s the downside: with the written word we lose the ability to use our voice to apply emphasis.

In the second sentence, the changed one, you might (wrongly) suppose the emphasis is on the word “everyone.” In this strange but glorious world, everyone is getting chocolate chip cookies. But, in fact, the emphasis belongs on the Central Bakeshop — where you have to go to get the cookies, if you want them.

Putting the word “only” as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies won’t always be enough to make your meaning entirely clear. But it’s the best place to start. (And I eventually convinced my client of this.)

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