Whether you have already written that great book or are still just thinking about it, there are probably several things you can do to improve the quality of your writing. Whole books have been written on the various aspects of the writer’s craft (indeed there are hundreds of such books). And though I do not wish to demean any of those books or to diminish their value in any way, I have chosen to focus on just one small issue: the proper and precise use of the adverb “only.”
Though this issue is primarily centered in the proper use of adverbs, it is more complicated than just that. So let us consider together the difficulties associated with the proper use of this strange little word. To help us understand the matter at hand, let’s look at adverbs in general−what they are and how they are used. First we shall define what an adverb is and show how it is different from an adjective. Such a discussion seems elementary I know−you learned this in your high school English class−but please bear with me.
An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a phrase, or a clause. An adjective, on the other hand, modifies a noun or a pronoun. The adverb is used to describe or limit the meaning of the word, clause, or phrase that it modifies by telling us when, where, why, how, or to what extent. Many adverbs can be identified by an ly at the end−as by adding ly to the end of an adjective. Adverbs such as quickly, carefully, hastily, naturally, or beautifully are created from the adjectives quick, careful, hasty, natural, and beautiful. The matter is somewhat complicated, however, because there are also adjectives that end in ly, and there are also cases where the same word may be used both as an adverb and as an adjective, depending on how that modifier is used. There are also many words that do not end in ly that are adverbs. These include such words as quite, far, near, often, well, even, and almost.
The word only is can be used as an adverb, an adjective, and occasionally as a conjunction. When we say, “He was the only boy present,” only is an adjective, modifying the noun boy. But when we say, “He comes only when it is convenient,” then only is an adverb, modifying the phrase "when it is convenient" by telling to what extent. An example of the informal use of only as a conjunction is this sentence: “I would contribute, only I don’t have any money.”
Most of us who speak the English language routinely place many of our adverbs in the wrong place in daily communications. And the adverb only is misplaced more than any other. We have little concern about this misplacement in our oral communications because the meaning of what we say is usually still quite clear. Unfortunately, however, the practice carries over into both our written communications and the media. We see it in newspapers, in magazines, and in many books. And this misplacement of only has become pervasive in television and radio advertising and in both local and network news broadcasts.
The following examples will help us understand the problem better. Each example has either two or three sentence. In the first sentence, only is a misplaced adverb. In the second sentence, only is placed in its correct position. And in the third sentence (when there is one) another correct alternative is shown. There are two things you should note from these examples: when only is used as an adverb (1) it never modifies the verb and (2) it always tells to what extent. Some observations follow each example.
1. The mad scientist only cared about the final results.
The mad scientist cared only about the final results.
The mad scientist cared about only the final results.
(Both the second and third sentences of this example show correct usage. Which one is correct depends on the meaning that is intended. In the second sentence, only is an adverb used to modify the prepositional phrase about the final results. In the third sentence, only is an adjective that modifies results [as do the and final].)
2. The children only wander away when the gate is open.
The children wander away only when the gate is open.
(To have the adverb only modify the verb wander produces an imprecise result. Only more appropriately modifies the phrase when the gate is open as shown in the second sentence. However, if we were to change the extent of the problem by using frequently, seldom, or never as the adverb (instead of only), those adverbs would modify the verb [wander], and would thus be positioned correctly where only is positioned in the first sentence of the example.)
3. She only attends the class on Tuesdays.
She attends the class only on Tuesdays.
(If the extent of class attendance were changed and we used another adverb, such as frequently, seldom, or never (instead of only), the proper placement of the adverb would be before the verb [attends] in all three cases. The adverb only, however, modifies the prepositional phrase on Tuesdays.)
4. They only read the Bible on Sundays.
They read the Bible only on Sundays.
(The adverb only does not modify the verb read, but rather the phrase on Sundays. It indicates the extent. If we were to change the extent by using such adverbs as never, frequently, or always (instead of only), they would modify the verb [read] and would thus be correctly placed before the verb.)
5. Only call this number in an emergency.
Call this number only in an emergency.
Call only this number in an emergency.
(The first sentence suggests that there is only one number to call in an emergency. The second suggests that the number one calls in an emergency should never be called for any other reason or at any other time. The third is much like the first but is a bit clearer. Though the first or the third sentences are the most likely to be used, their meaning is probably not intended in most cases.)
Apart from all other grammatical issues that we deal with in our writing, our proper use of only will set us apart as meticulous writers who are careful to get it right.