15 January 2007

Only Connect

James Kilpatrick good on use of 'only'.

"Four little letters! When put properly together they spell O-N-L-Y, and when "only" is properly positioned in our writing, the gods of prose composition are greatly pleased.

Seriously, no little dog trick of the writing art is easier to master or more attractive in its application than the effective placement of this 14th-century adverb. Every year in this column we use the same shifting example of an altercation on a playground:

  • Only John hit Peter in the nose. (Other combatants may have hit Peter in the eye or belly or back, but only John hit Peter in the nose.)
  • John only hit Peter in the nose. (John didn't knife him or shoot him; he only hit him in the nose.)
  • John hit Peter only in the nose (or John hit Peter in the nose only). (He didn't hit him on the eye or back or arm; he hit him only in the nose.)
  • John hit only Peter in the nose. (John didn't hit anyone else in the nose.)

The trick, of course, is to place the "only" as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies."


Anonymous said...

only a pawn in their game

Busker said...

'Onlie begetter', even.

Nice one from rwells, keeping the faith. This could get interesting.