Syntax: Properly Placing “Only”

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Does plaintiff’s claim only get her so far? Or does her claim get only so far?

Changing Sentence Meaning by Changing the Placement of “Only:

  1. Only Before the Verb: The defendant only admitted to the theft.
    1. Interpretation: The defendant did nothing except admit to a theft.
  2. Only After the Verb: The defendant admitted only to the theft.
    1. Interpretation: Out of several potential accusations or charges, the defendant admitted solely to theft (perhaps he has an assault charge as well).
  3. Only Before a Noun: Only the defendant’s lawyer spoke to the judge.
    1. Interpretation: No one else spoke to the judge except the defendant’s lawyer.
  4. Only Before an Adjective: The contract is only valid for 30 days.
    1. Interpretation: The validity of the contract is limited to thirty days and no longer.
  5. Only Before a Prepositional Phrase: The evidence is admissible only in federal court.
    1. Interpretation: This evidence would not be admissible in any other court besides federal court.

General Rule: Only should be placed before the limitation or contrast you’re describing.

  • Rule of Thumb: Put “only” where you’d put “but only.
    • Example Sentence: “He said he would contribute to his son’s IRA only if he continued to maintain a 4.0 GPA.
    • Check with “but only: “He said he would contribute to his son’s IRA, but only if he continued to maintain a 4.0 GPA.”

Takeaway: Improperly placing only can create ambiguities and alter the meaning of a given sentence or clause, so always place only carefully! Now here are a few practice problems to try.

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1. For the following sentence, which construction properly places only: A plaintiff can only establish defamation by citing a misstatement of fact.

2 / 5

2. In which of these sentences is the word “only” in the WRONG spot?

3 / 5

3. For the following sentence, which construction is most concise and properly places only: The base commander permitted the non-commissioned officers to visit town only twice a month.

4 / 5

4. In the next sentence, which of the underlined words or phrases, if any, has an error? Public officials only perform“official acts” when they exercise actual governmental power or improperly lobby other officials to exercise such power.

5 / 5

5. In the next sentence, which of the underlined words or phrases, if any, has an error? The full scale of the problem of wrongful convictions only began reaching the public in the 1990s, when DNA evidence was introduced in criminal cases.

Your score is

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