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Make Sure “Only” Knows Its Place

The word “only” can change the meaning of a sentence depending on its position in that sentence. If only I could remember the “only rule” I need to know.

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Not so long ago — certainly less than (2 yonks) / 2 (you have to say it this way because “yonks” exists only in the plural form, which means there is no such thing as a standalone “yonk”) — as part of his “Software Speakers” series of interviews, my chum Jaime Villela posted a video chat between the two of us (see Helping Engineers Become Better Communicators). A few weeks later, my friend Adam Taylor posted a video chat between himself and yours truly as part of his “Embedded Hour” series of interviews (see Two Yorkshiremen in Hawaiian Shirts). As an aside, for your delectation and delight, I’ll be video chatting with both Jaime and Adam again on Thursday 10 and Friday 11 December, respectively. This is where things start to get a bit complicated because Jaime saw the Adam-Max video and decided that he wanted to interview Adam himself (he will be posting this interview shortly). Following this interview, Jaime emailed me to say, that he and Adam had enjoyed a great chat, but that Adam had mentioned that he comes from Yorkshire. Jaime concluded by saying, “I thought you were both from Sheffield, what am I missing here?” I replied as follows: Hi Jaime, I’m glad you had a good talk with Adam. Please let me know when that video has been posted. Regarding your question:
  • England is a country like America (but far better, of course).
  • In the same way that America has 50 states, so England has 48 ceremonial (a.k.a. geographic) counties.
  • Yorkshire is a county in England like Alabama is a state in America.
  • Sheffield is a city in Yorkshire like Huntsville is a city in Alabama.
If you want to delve into this in more depth:
  • England is a kingdom, as is Scotland, while Wales is a principality.
  • The Romans called the combination of England and Wales “Britannia” (they only used rude words for Scotland), so the moniker “Britain” only refers to the combination of England and Wales, although this term is often confused with “Great Britain.”
  • Great Britain is the combination of Britain and Scotland (that is, England, Wales, and Scotland).
  • The United Kingdom (UK) is the combination of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Southern Ireland a.k.a. The Republic of Ireland a.k.a. Éire is an independent country full of angry people with an amusing accent — much like Scotland when you come to think about it).
Did you see my deliberate mistake? It’s where I said, “…the moniker “Britain” only refers to…” Sad to relate, I put the word “only” in the wrong place. The way I should have written this is, “…the moniker “Britain” refers only to…” I’m embarrased to say that I do this all the time (I hang my head in shame). Recently, for example, I wrote “You only get one chance to make a good first impression!” I should, of course, have written, “You get only one chance to make a good first impression!” All of this leads me to the point of this column, which is that one of my back-burner hobby projects is to write a book on grammar and punctuation for engineers. As part of this, I want to cover the topic of keeping “only” in its place. I remember once seeing multiple copies of an example sentence each containing the same words in the same order, the only exception being that the word “only” appeared in different positions, with each location casting a different meaning on the sentence. I think there were at least five variants, but there may have been more. The way I recall this is as looking something like the following:
Xxxx xxxxxxxx xx only xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxxx. Xxxx xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx only xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxxx. Xxxx xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxxxx only xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxxx. Xxxx xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx only xxxx xxxxxxxxxx. Xxxx xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx only xxxxxxxxxx.
The problem is that, for the life of me, I cannot remember the actual example. So, I was wondering if you recall seeing something like this and, if so, if you would be kind enough to share it with the rest of us?

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David Ashton

Have a look at this

Scroll down a bit and you get to

  • “Only I like dancing at a party”.
  • “I only like dancing at a party”.
  • “I like only dancing at a party”.
  • “I like dancing only at a party”.
  • “I like dancing at only a party”.
  • “I like dancing at a party only”.

along with some explanations of the various shades of meaning.

Is that what you were after?

Charles Pfeil

If I only knew the answer, I could help you
If I knew the only answer, I could help you
If I knew the answer, only I could help you
If I knew the answer, I could help only you

David Amor

Personally, it gets my back up when a project manager uses the word only: e.g. can you add a debug port, it’s only an Ethernet port.


it’s not pro if someone tell u to do the only thing for him but you do more or even in an exercice u r obliged to to do only that tasks not to over do it or do less than it .I only do my job
my sister is my only supporter
iam the only one in this room which feel anxious .
Only maria ,have a full mark in the exam .
only as a adj : this is an only dog in the street

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