1. A correspondent wrote to us in 1986 complaining about the misplacement of the word only in contemporary writing and offering "a few examples taken mostly from recent news articles" with her corrections:
We should begin by placing this issue in historical perspective.
Thus it is commonly said, 'I only spake three words': when the intention of the speaker manifestly requires, 'I spake only three words.' —Lowth 1763
Another blunder, of which the instances are innumerable, is the misplacing of the word only. Indeed, this is so common, so absolutely universal, one may almost say that "only" cannot be found in its proper place in any book within the whole range of English literature,—to say nothing of newspapers, magazines, and the various departments of spoken language —Gould 1867
only: This word, whose correct position depends upon the intention of the author, is often misplaced —Vizetelly 1906
Only. "He only had one." Say, He had only one, or, better, one only —Bierce 1909
only Make sure you put it immediately before the word it actually modifies —Trimble 1975
"Drink Budweiser only for five days.".... If this means we are to drink no water or beverage other than Bud for five days, it is correct. Otherwise only is misplaced—Simon 1980
On the matter of the misplaced only, I am as crotchety as an old bear with a thorn in his paw, and I nurse a lasting grudge against Fowler and Follett because of their indifference —Kilpatrick 1984
We can see that this problem of the misplaced only has been around for over two centuries. We can also see that writers are held to misplace it with some frequency. And we will see from the following examples that the chief mistake is the placing of only between the subject and the verb or between the auxiliary verb and the main verb—common locations for many common adverbs.
Who are the writers who misplace only? Hall 1917 calls them "the standard authors," and cites 104 of them from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Here is a sampler:
... I will only add this in the defence of our present Writers —John Dryden, "Defence of the Epilogue," 1672
... follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture —Joseph Addison, The Spectator (in Hall)
Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach —Samuel Johnson, Preface to the Dictionary, 1755
I shall only mention one particular of dress —Tobias Smollett, Travels Through France and Italy, 1766
I set out immediately, with my son, for London, and we only stopped a little by the way to view Stone-henge on Salisbury Plain —Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1788
... but which through a stupid blunder ... only did cost one American dollar and a half —Henry Adams, letter, 15-17 May 1859
He only does it to annoy, Because he knows it teases
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865 (in Cyrus Day, Word Study, December 1962)
We see cherubs by Raphael, whose baby-innocence could only have been nursed in Paradise —Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun, 1860 (in Hall)
The perfect loveliness of a woman's countenance can only consist in the majestic peace which is founded in memory of happy and useful years —John Rus-kin, Sesame and Lilies, 1865 (in Hall)
The endeavor to find the distinctions of Latin grammar in that of English has only resulted in grotesque errors —A. H. Sayce, Encyclopxdia Britannica, 1 lth ed., 1910
I think that Stephen Spender was only attempting to enumerate oil and water colour pictures and not photographs —T. S. Eliot, letter, 16 Oct. 1963
I'll only stop to fetch the little calf—Robert Frost (in Day, Word Study)
We feel very badly about your only having one turkey —James Thurber, letter, Fall 1938
They only opened one bag and took the passports in and looked at them —Ernest Hemingway (in Day, Word Study)
... the critics and scholars (most of them) gave him high marks in Speech when he had only earned them in Observation —John O'Hara, letter, 17 Feb. 1959
I only got wine by roaring for it —Evelyn Waugh (in Burchfield 1981)
... that would only mean that a noble distinction, hard to replace, had been lost —I. A. Richards, Confluence, March 1954
He only planned to keep on going as far as each streetcar would take him —E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime, 1975
If writers from Dryden to Doctorow have ignored the rule that only must immediately precede the word it modifies, where did the rule come from? It seems to have originated with Bishop Lowth in 1763. It was not directed by Lowth at the placement of only (his mention of only is in a footnote), but is a rule for adverbs generally:
The Adverb, as its name imports, is generally placed close or near to the word, which it modifies or affects; and its propriety and force depend on its position.
Baker 1770 censures the misplacement of only along with that of not only, neither, and either; there are, he says, "innumerable Instances" of their wrong placing. Lindley Murray 1795 likewise is addressing a more general principle when he cites two instances of misplaced only (one of which is Baker's example). The narrowing of the rule to only must have taken place later, in the 19th or 20th centuries. But even many modern handbooks include words other than only in their discussions: Chambers 1985, for instance, mentions even with only; Scott, Foresman 1981 adds almost, even, hardly, scarcely, just, and nearly.
But why the disparity between rule and practice? The answer undoubtedly lies in the rule's foundation: it is based on the application of logical thinking to written English. The "misplacing" of only is caused by the operation of idiom in spoken English. Lowth's original objection to "I only spake three words" depends on his interpreting only to apply ambiguously to either / or to spake, an interpretation that would not be possible if the words were spoken. Prose was not written laboriously in the 18th century; careful and painstaking revision was, in the main, reserved for poetry. Thus, 18th-century prose was undoubtedly closer to spoken English than it appears from this distance. We know that Dr. Johnson, who habitually put such things off until the last minute, dashed off many of his prose works and never revised them. We should not be surprised, therefore, that many instances of "misplaced" only can be found in his prose works.
A rule based on logic that is applied to written English and does not take into account the natural idiom of speech will create thousands of "violations" as soon as it is formulated. This plainly has been the case with the rule for placing only.
If the grammarians and rhetoricians who preached strict adherence to the placement rule viewed noncom-pliance only as so much more incorrect English, the disparity between rule and practice was seen by others in a different light. One of the earliest to comment was Alford 1866:
The adverb only in many sentences where strictly speaking it ought to follow the verb and to limit the objects of the verb, is in good English placed before the verb.
Goold Brown 1851 calls Lowth's criticism of "I only spake three words"—which he found with spake altered to spoke in a later grammar—hypercritical. Hall 1917 devotes six pages to the subject and lists 104 authors in over 400 passages in violation of the rule. But the most trenchant notice of the disparity is taken by Fowler 1926. He begins with a quotation and appends his opinion:
I read the other day of a man who 'only died a week ago', as if he could have done anything else more striking or final; what was meant by the writer was that he 'died only a week ago'. There speaks one of those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved, one of those modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion, & wish to restrain liberty as such, regardless of whether it is harmfully or harmlessly exercised.
For He only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used & still use, & that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural. Remember that in speech there is not even the possibility of misunderstanding, because the intonation of died is entirely different if it, & not a week ago, is qualified by only; & it is fair that a reader should be supposed capable of supplying the decisive intonation where there is no temptation to go wrong about it.
Fowler has his contemporary followers:
To quibble about the position of only when meaning is not at stake is to waste time —Perrin & Ebbitt 1972
The placement of only in a sentence is a matter of great concern to a few self-styled purists, but happily not for most speakers and writers.... The simple fact is that the "rule" about placing only next to the element modified is honored now more in the breach than in the observance. Especially in speech, the normal placement of only is before the verb and this must be considered to be a perfectly acceptable part of the American idiom —Harper 1985
The placement in speech is well attested:
... I once tried to buy such a pair, for myself: but only got the crushing reply that "slippers of that kind are only worn by ladies"! —Lewis Carroll, letter, 11 Nov. 1896
There was a young man, who had only worked there six weeks —William Benton, in Studs Terkel, Hard Times, 1970
He only got in three innings' work all spring —Dick Howser, quoted in New Yorker, 9 Dec. 1985
All these examples that run counter to the rule for what Fowler terms "orthodox" placement might lead you to suspect, as Harper 1985 does, that few people use the orthodox placement. Such is not the case, however. What has happened is that both parties to this dispute have been at pains to find examples that disagree with the rule; the prescribers present them for correction, and the rule's critics present them as evidence that the rule and usage do not match. No one—at least until comparatively recent times—has bothered to collect examples that adhere to the orthodox placement. Such examples do exist, abundantly:
The Endymion is now waiting only for orders, but may wait for them perhaps a month —Jane Austen, letter, 1 Nov. 1800
To many women marriage is only this —Mary Webb, The Golden Arrow, 1916
She looked at the body only enough to make sure that it was all over —Glenway Wescott, Apartment in Athens, 1945
... I can only try to explain what was in my mind — Christopher Fry, Atlantic, March 1953
There is no evil in the atom; only in men's souls — Adlai E. Stevenson, Speeches, ed. Richard Harrity, 1952
... I'd taken it only just in time —Christopher Ish-erwood, in New World Writing, 1952
... maybe we'd have only one more chance —William Faulkner, 25 Feb. 1957, in Faulkner in the University, 1959
He needed only to suffer —E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime, 1975
Indeed, we spent so little time in bed most of us had only one child —James Thurber, letter, 24 June 1959
But we can ultimately only guess about Davis — Robert Penn Warren, Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, 1980
Bryant 1962 notes that the position of only with respect to the word or phrase it modifies is not fixed in standard English—especially not in speech—but in edited written English it is usually placed immediately before the word or words it modifies. She cites a study of magazines—presumably American—showing that 84 percent of the onlys appeared in the orthodox position—a figure she speculates may be somewhat heightened by the strictures of textbook writers or the preferences of editors. An examination of the citations in the Merriam-Webster files made in 1982 reached a similar conclusion: in edited prose only tends to be placed immediately before the word or words it modifies.
Although no one has searched 18th-century literature for examples of the orthodox positioning of only, it seems reasonable to suppose that the orthodox positioning and the idiomatic speech positioning have both been in use all along, and that writers have used the orthodox positioning when it seemed useful to do so. Thus Jane Austen's use of it in 1800—in a letter.
So what rather looks like an increase in use of the orthodox positioning may be somewhat illusory if it has, as we conjecture, been in use all along (note that in some of the examples no other positioning is likely). Such increase may be due in part to the urging of the "rule" by editors and textbooks, but it is just as likely that it is due to the increased prestige of prose as a literary medium. Prose is certainly considered more worthy of revision and polishing than it was two centuries ago; the logical positioning of only is likely to be more desirable the less the prose resembles spontaneous speech. Our correspondent's examples are all drawn from journalism or speech; journalism is prose produced to a deadline—in just the way Samuel Johnson used to write. There is less time to revise such writing, and there is correspondingly greater likelihood that such a writer will use the natural idioms of speech.
To conclude, we offer these few summary observations. The position of only in standard spoken English is not fixed; ambiguity is prevented by clarifying stress and intonation. In literary English from the 17th century to the present, the placement of only according to the idiom of speech has been freely used; it is still used, especially in prose that keeps close to the rhythms of speech. In current edited prose—especially that for which ample time has been provided for revision—only tends to be used in the orthodox position—immediately before (or sometimes after) the word or words it modifies.
See also even.
2. The conjunction only, for reasons not stated, is rejected by the usage panel of Heritage 1969, 1982 and is questioned in formal use by Longman 1984. It is called incorrect by Woolley & Scott 1926. Bache 1869 had censured it too, but his example, from a sign at an Albany, N.Y., trolley-car stop, is not very useful to generalize from. The OED dates use of only as a conjunction back to the 14th century. Goold Brown 1851 notes the use without comment; he even quotes a use from another grammarian without censure. Here are a few examples, arranged not by meaning, but by position in the sentence:
It is intended to stop all debate, like the previous question in the General Court. Only it don't — Oliver Wendell Holmes d. 1894, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1858
... they were getting plenty of notice of German intentions and preparations. Only, they failed to heed them —William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years, 1984
For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for occasion to the flesh —Galatians 5:13 (AV), 1611
... they would have had an answer, only the old lady began rattling on —W. M. Thackeray, History of Sam Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond, 1841 (in Jespersen 1917)
I should not have noticed this one only it happened to come alone —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902 (in Jespersen)
I'd introduce you to her, only you'd win her —Jack London, Martin Eden, 1909 (in Jespersen)
Rhododendron time in Seattle is fairly spectacular, only I can't think when rhododendrons are in bloom —E. B. White, letter, 23 June 1946
You can ask Shakespeare to speak for himself, only he won't do it —Eric Bentley, New Republic, 5 May 1952
... they were right enough in a way, only they failed to understand that the choice had already been made —Irving Howe & Eliezer Greenberg, New Republic, 9 Aug. 1954
These uses are standard. It may be that because the conjunction is sometimes found in dialectal contexts, some may feel it is not standard. Particular contexts may be dialectal; the senses in which only is used are not:
"Only I'm an old man now I'd change his tune for him. I'd take the stick to his back...." —James Joyce, Dubliners, 1914
... he kept telling how he could catch them thieves easy, only the rheumatiz was so bad he couldn't walk —Vance Randolph, Western Folklore, January 1951
Oi should hev cut the hay today, only that wuz tew wet —A. O. D. Claxton, The Suffolk Dialect of the 20th Century, 1954