Alarm #1: The Lonely “Only”


I often emphasize a particular metaphor in my writing workshops for employee groups: that if we’re at all accomplished in any area – whether it’s writing or rappelling or retrofitting – we surely have a highly developed “alarm system” that contributes to our proficiency. We have expertise partly because our brain is loaded with signals that let us know when we need to slow down, pay attention, make an adjustment.

One path, then, to continual improvement of our writing is a commitment to expanding our alarm system, whether a new alarm pertains to word usage, grammar, punctuation, style, or any other aspect of our effectiveness as a writer.

To introduce what will be the first of many posts about alarms you might like to have working for you, let’s look at the word “only.” Why did I call it “lonely” in the title? To my mind, no other word comes close to “only” in how frequently we drop it into the wrong spot in a sentence. It’s all alone in first place.

Good news all around

The good news about this error is that it’s not terribly serious because usually the misplacement doesn’t obscure the clarity of the sentence. And the other good news is that fixing the misplacement is almost always simple. Let’s look at a few examples:

1. We only spent three days in the city. That’s clear enough, but only spent? No. What we meant was only three days. This slight slip-up is typical because we tend to stick “only” in front of the verb when we write or speak, even though it often belongs elsewhere: We spent only three days in the city. Yes!

2. DeFillippo had only called plays at San Jose State in 2011. This sentence from Sunday’s newspaper is short but ambiguous. Did the Browns’ new offensive coordinator only call plays, as opposed to fulfilling additional duties? Did he call plays only at one school? Did he do this only in 2011?

My guess at what was intended is this: DeFillippo had called plays only at San Jose State in 2011. If I’m right, moving “only” and giving it double-duty clarifies the meaning: only at one school and only in that year.

3. We only reviewed sales figures in the morning. Taken literally, this would seem to mean that the sales figures were only reviewed when more could have happened. For example, the figures could have been analyzed statistically or used in forecasting, but most likely the real meaning is one of the following two:

A. We reviewed only sales figures in the morning. (We could have gone over other data – such as expenses – but only sales figures were discussed.)

B. We reviewed sales figures only in the morning. (The topic of sales figures did not come up in the afternoon session.)

And we can always reword if putting “only” where it belongs sounds at all awkward: A. In the morning the only data we reviewed was sales figures. B. We reviewed sales figures in the morning only. 

So even when the meaning will be clear to the reader if we don’t react to the alarm we have set on “only,” we can easily spiff up our writing when we do react. I only watched two episodes is clear, but I watched only two episodes is better writing.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at

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