Thursday, October 04, 2007

If Only 'Only' Were Used Properly

Currently, a taped commercial which features a celebrity and an upcoming event is running on one of the local network stations. When speaking about the event, the celebrity states a phrase similar to this: I only will have backstage access.

From listening to the rest of the commercial, I believe he means to say the following: Only I will have backstage access.... meaning the other networks will not have the exclusive coverage that he will have.

To some, the correction may seem picky. But, for those who are paying attention, the difference is important. There's a big difference between saying you're the sole person who will have access AND saying the only thing you will be doing is having access. Understand?

In short, the only should be placed near the item that is being modified. It's easier to see when moving the only around in a sentence, so below are the six different meanings inside the sentence 'Mike placed a letter in the mailbox.' (It is important to note that inflection in voice may also cause a change in some of the meanings, but the following are what these sentences usually mean.)

1. Only Mike placed a letter in the mailbox.
As discussed above, Mike is the only person who mailed a letter. No one else but Mike placed it in the box.

2. Mike only placed a letter in the mailbox.
The only thing Mike did was mail a letter. He didn't do anything else.

3. Mike placed only a letter in the mailbox.
The item Miked mailed was one letter. He didn't mail another.

4. Mike placed a letter only in the mailbox.
Mike mailed a letter and not a box or a parcel in the mailbox OR (depending on inflection) Mike placed a letter in the mailbox and nowhere else.

5. Mike placed a letter in the only mailbox.
Mike mailed a letter in the sole mailbox.

6. Mike placed a letter in the mailbox only.
Mike mailed a letter in the mailbox and nowhere else.

See the differences? Probably the most common misuse we hear is 'It will only take me a minute' OR 'It only will take me a minute' when 'It will take only a minute' is what is usually intended. So, if you just take a pause to consider what is being modified, the placement of only should be simple to determine.

As always, this is what I learned. So, if you learned it to be used in a different manner or you believe I am incorrect, please correct me. I need all of the help I can get.


jsarber said...

I'll have to play the southern card here. My english has never been, how you say, good. I still have a tendancy to use words that are not words and use words that do not belong where I use them. I blame it all on what I have picked up from those southerns and their version of the English language. As I get older though, I try harder to "talk right." So, I appreciate these lessons in vocabulary. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the examples of the use of the word "only". While reading your first two paragraphs, I could not get an expression from the book of Job out of my mind. I double-checked myself and found in the first chapter where a messenger came to Job and said ". . . And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee." Job 1:15. There are three other accounts in the same chapter where other messengers came unto him and used the same expression "and I only am escaped alone to tell thee."

I know that I am not a grammar expert. Is this in the same context that you are talking about in the commercial? Is it possible that while the scriptures are divinely inspired that they could still be grammatically incorrect in places? Just wondering.

In love,
Piano Man

strem said...

Dad, thanks for writing to comment, and thanks for pointing out this passage. It has been wonderful to start the morning by reading the scriptures surrounding this verse.

I stand (sit) corrected. As I pointed out on one of the sentences, much of this has to do with inflection. And, in this case, it is being stressed that "I only" - the sole individual - escaped. If the celebrity was reading a teleprompter, this is probably what the writer intended for the spokesman to say... to set it apart with inflection.

I wish I had a copy of it now - as his inflection is completely different, however. I'll have to search my VCR tapes to see if I have recorded it. It just doesn't sound the same. But, in reading, this can be so much trickier than when we hear someone say the phrase. That's why - when I'm not rambling on the blog but am writing serious documents - I attempt to make the context crystal clear.

Being 'gramatically or punctuationally correct' is still so subjective - based on the methods an individual was taught. And, I have no idea what the norm was back in the time the bible was translated or first recorded. Uncle Roger says he tries to always use it as the standard - even now - regardless of what the textbooks say.

In the big scheme of things, this topic isn't that important, I realize. But, it is often funny what individuals say. For your amusement: I think I've heard "I could care less" at least 8 times this week. Again, thanks for writing, Dad.

strem said...

Jeremy, you crack me up. I think you "talk good" and "write good", so you're doing just fine. :)

Elizabeth said...

Well, I think y'all all talk good! Though southern, I am not THAT southern! And I do think this 'only' thing is quite an astute observation! Lately I have been noticing the use of just. It is so often used like 'only' and it seems to minimize the activity itself. How of has you said, "Oh, I was just praying" Just Praying - that isn't really a light thing to be doing (though we take it as such so often) - But, I am really am not so passionate about this one, but should like to correct it in my own speech at least.

strem said...

Just I used just 'just' just now when I was just talking to just one of my co-workers.

I'm guilty of this.... especially when replying to someone when they answer the phone, saying, "It's just Strem."