Friday, 17 June 2011

If only ...

If you heard someone say, “I blue see a car driving down the road”, you’d probably think: What an odd place to put the word blue – it should go immediately before car (or before road, if the road is blue).

Exactly. One of the mechanisms we use to convey our intended meaning is to order words in a particular way.

It is highly unlikely that a mother-tongue speaker of English would put the word blue in the wrong place in a sentence like the one above, but there are some words that are treated with great carelessness when it comes to positioning.

One of the most frequently (very frequently!) abused ones is only. Many otherwise well-spoken, decent, law-abiding citizens (including journalists, who should know better) say and write things like: (1) “We only saw impala in the Kruger” when they mean “We saw only impala in the Kruger”; and (2) “I’ve only been to the mall six times” when they mean “I’ve been to the mall only six times.”

Closely related to only is not only, which we usually use to create the anticipation that further information is to follow. If we misposition not only, we mislead the hearer/reader into misanticipating the next bit of information. For example: “Carlos not only offered to pay for the meat …” creates the expectation that he also carried out some other action, e.g. “… but also insisted on hiring a chef”. This is because not only has been placed immediately before the verb offered. If the sentence were to continue: “ … but also for the drinks”, the wrong expectation will have been created. To create the correct expectation the first part of the sentence should read, “Carlos offered to pay not only for the meat …”

As far as possible, only and not only should immediately precede the word(s) they relate to – for the sake of preciseness, the elimination of potential confusion (ambiguity) and aesthetics.

Not only should we not misposition only and not only, but also other, similar words.

(Ouch! There I’ve just done it – mispositioned those words. Isn’t it irritating?)   –ws–

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