What’s the Correct Use of “Only”?

Village Wooing is one of Bernard Shaw’s lesser-known comedies. Only three scholars have had anything to say about it, and I’ve seen the play performed only once. Last year I spent a great deal of time thinking about Village Wooing because a friend asked me to write an article about it for a book that he was putting together.

While I was studying the play, I noticed a snippet of dialogue about a usage issue – the placement of only in a sentence – that I’m going to talk about today. A village shopkeeper – a single woman identified only as Z. – is pursuing a travel writer, a widower identified only as A. Here’s the exchange:

Z. Well, your second marriage may be an agreeable surprise, maynt it?
A. What, exactly, do you mean by my second marriage? I have only been married once. I mean I have been married only once.

How like Shaw: His central character is a stickler for grammar! (I’ll explain the rule about only in must a moment. I should add that Shaw considered apostrophes ugly and omitted them whenever he could – so he used maynt instead of the more correct mayn’t in Z’s question.)

In a short play like this Village Wooing, everything counts. When A. catches himself making a usage mistake, he establishes himself as an educated person and – despite the romantic promise of the play’s title – a stuffy person who might not seem attractive to the gregarious Z. This exchange is a good example of Shaw’s skill at exposition – helping audiences get to know the characters without slowing down the movement of the play. (I guess I should relieve your curiosity by explaining that A. and Z. do decide to marry before the final curtain.)

Today I want to focus on the misplaced only that A. stumbled over. I’m going to begin by explaining his mistake, and then I want to go on to ask whether it really was a mistake.

Expert writers are careful to place only right next to the word it modifies. Here’s a mini-lesson I’ve often used with my students. Notice how the meaning changes every time only is moved to a different position in the sentence:

Only I kissed her.

I only kissed her.

I kissed only her.

All three sentences are correct, and they all mean something different.

Although Shaw had little formal education (he attended school for only a year), he had a thorough knowledge of English usage and a reputation as a curmudgeon. But this is where it gets interesting. I’ve been reading Shaw for lo-these-many-years, and I can testify that he wasn’t always fussy about where he positioned only in a sentence – and I’m not just talking about his informal pieces. Take a look at this example from The Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman (the play that won Shaw a Nobel Prize):

I have only made my Don Juan a political pamphleteer, and given you his pamphlet in full by way of appendix.

Mind you, this is from a writer who scrupulously oversaw every detail of publication. So we can’t say that Shaw was just being careless, especially since there are many other examples of a misplaced only in his prodigious output.

Here’s what I think: Although Shaw knew the rule, sometimes he didn’t give a damn about it.

Can you do the same – ignore a rule because you don’t feel like obeying it? Or because it makes a sentence awkward – or you think it’s a stupid rule?

In a word: yes.

I’m thinking about the lovely song “I Only Have Eyes for You” (you can listen to it here). Would the song be as wonderful if the title were changed to “I Have Eyes Only for You?” I don’t think so. 

I’m wondering if our fetish about correct placement of only can be traced back to the well-meaning but misinformed grammarians who thought language had to be logical. That’s not true. Language is a multi-dimensional invention that can’t be squeezed into a logical system. “Misplaced” – like beauty – may be only in the eye of the beholder. (Or may only be in the eye of the beholder. Take your pick.)

Can you follow Shaw’s lead and place only wherever you think it works best? Of course – but remember that you may raise some eyebrows if you’re writing for a sophisticated readership.

My own practice is to be casual with only in everyday conversation. But when I’m writing professionally, I’m careful and precise. What are your thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “What’s the Correct Use of “Only”?

  1. Gustavo A. Rodríguez

    As usual, there is very little to add to your expert advice. However, I would like to take the liberty of mentioning some further reading people may want to do regarding two of the points you (implicitly) make.

    The first has to do with the notion that “misplaced” is in the eye of the beholder. I am now reading The Art of Joyce’s Syntax in Ulysses (http://www.amazon.com/Art-Joyces-Syntax-Ulysses-Meaning/dp/0820304786) and it illustrates very clearly how choices of word order often involve remarkable differences in meaning.

    The second has to do with the way you use mnemonics to remember spelling rules. As you probably know, using visual narratives in your imagination is a technique that most ‘memory athletes’ use. You can read more here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201207/interview-world-memory-champion-boris-nikolai-konrad

    Anyway, a wonderful post, as usual.

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