Where to Put Your 'Only'

Here’s a reminder about the word “only”: You can put it wherever you like. But some people don’t know you can put it wherever you like, so they’ll think you’re wrong any time you don’t put it where they like.

The myth – and it’s one I, myself, once believed – is that “only” must be placed immediately next to the word it modifies.

If this were true, “I only want candy” would mean that wanting is the sole thing you do with candy. You don’t buy it. You don’t make it. You don’t even eat it. You only want it.

According to this belief, you would have to say “I want only candy” when you mean that candy is the only thing you want. You don’t want cookies. You don’t want fish and chips. You want only candy.

The nice thing about this idea is that it helps you remember that, sometimes, putting “only” next to the word it modifies can erase all doubt about your meaning. And I like the idea of laser precision in language. But you don’t have to. There’s no rule that says “only” must be placed right next to the word it modifies. On this matter, the only real rule is clarity. So on this matter, as in many others, your only real obligation is to the reader.

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