Editing Tips—The Wandering Only

Our editors explain the misplaced "only"

A photo of a person wandering in the sand, leaving footprints behind.
Don't let the word only wander aimlessly around your
page. Put it in its place with proper editing.

In part one of our Editing Tips series, we dealt with the active and passive voice, explaining how to identify the passive voice and how to avoid overusing it. We then provided tips on how to properly make comparisons, reminding writers to not make their readers infer or guess what is being compared. Now we will discuss what we call the wandering or misplaced "only," which, although common and usually understood in everyday casual speech, is often confusing and has no place in formal or academic writing.

Catch that "only" before it starts wandering

This one simple editing tip will help to clarify your writing immense     ly and make it sound tighter and more professional than before. Consider the sentence "Bob only ate two apples." Is it the writer's intent to emphasize that Bob didn't throw the apples or juggle them, but only ate them? Probably not; the writer likely means that Bob ate only two apples, not three or four. Thus, the meaning of the edited sentence, "Bob ate only two apples," is much clearer. Place the "only" as close as possible to whatever it modifies or limits. As this example illustrates, an "only" that is "wandering around" the sentence, misplaced, can confuse readers and inhibit their understanding of which word "only" is meant to modify.

Examples of the wandering only

Note how the placement of just one small word, "only," can completely change or blur each sentence's intended, true meaning.

1. "We only need to look to the current news media to see the havoc caused by religious intolerance."

Don't we also need to read, hear, think about, analyze, or discuss these media, too? Apparently not; the author says we only need to look at them. It is highly unlikely that this is what the author really meant. A much clearer, and thus better, sentence is, "We need to look only to the current news media to see the havoc caused by religious intolerance," or even, "We need to look no farther than the current news media to see the havoc caused by religious intolerance." The point is that all we have to look at to see this havoc (i.e., the only place we have to look) is at the current news media.

2. "...soft relativism, self-fulfillment, and self-centeredness can only be practiced in democratic societies where people have the right to choose for themselves..."

Can't these three items also be considered, discussed, written about, etc., in democratic societies? Of course they can; so why does the author say that they can only be practiced? The most likely reason is that he didn't say what he meant; it seems that what he really wanted to say is that they can't be practiced anywhere else but in democratic societies. A much better sentence, therefore, would say, "...soft relativism, self-fulfillment, and self-centeredness can be practiced only in democratic societies where people have the right to choose for themselves..." The "only" is limiting the types of societies that can practice these activities, so it needs to be placed as closely as possible to "democratic societies."

3. "A trust-based security solution designed for pervasive computing environments uses a chain to transfer trust when providing services, and users only delegate to other users that they trust."

Don't users also communicate with those other users they trust? Or keep track of them? No, the author says that they only delegate to them. It seems clear that her real point is that users don't delegate to any other users except those that they trust, so she should have said, "...and users delegate only to other users that they trust."

4. "A device may only exist in a certain pervasive computing environment for a short period..."

This one is the toughest. Does the author really mean that a device does nothing else except simply exist? Or does the author mean that a device can exist only in a certain environment for a short time, but that in other environments it can (or must) exist for a longer time? Or, he might also mean that a device can exist for only a short time, but not a long time, in a certain pervasive computing environment. This last possibility seems the most likely, so the sentence should read, "A device may exist in a certain pervasive computing environment for only a short period..." The fact that we have to guess, however, proves that the original sentence is unclear.  

Other wandering words to watch for when editing and proofreading

These same types of scenarios can also arise with the use of words such as "merely," "just," and "exclusively," which are closely similar to "only" in meaning. If you carefully place all of these words as closely as possible to the word they are modifying and consider alternative meanings when editing and proofreading your draft, your writing will be much clearer and sharper. If you still doubt whether you are using "only" correctly, send your document to our English grammar check for our editors to revise.

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