where to place only_blog

Think back to the last time you wrote a piece of content, a blog post, or a report. How much time did you spend on thinking about what you wanted to say and the words you were going to use to say it? Compare this with the amount of time you spent thinking about the order you were going to write these words in. If you’re like most people, you probably spent a lot more time thinking about what you wanted to write instead of how you were going to write it.

However, although the meaning of your blog post or report depends mostly on the words you include it, some of this meaning depends on how you order these words in your sentences. Two sentences that contain all of the same words can mean different things if the words in them are written in a different order. In fact, in some cases, accidentally changing the location of just one word in a sentence can alter the meaning of the sentence. One word that tends to be a frequent victim of this type of misplacement is the word “only.”

You may be surprised to learn that “only” can cause so much havoc in a sentence. After all, it’s a word that’s easy to spell and easy to understand, so why do people have such a hard time using it correctly? The main thing that tends to trip people up is figuring out where to put “only” in a sentence. As a result, many people end up placing it in the wrong spot in a sentence.

Using “Only” to Describe Quantities

The most common way that people tend to misplace “only” is when they use it to describe quantities. For example, take a look at these sentences:

  • “Yesterday we only went to the gym for five minutes.”
  • “This year, we only sold eight bottles of Brand X shampoo.”
  • “They only dropped by for a couple of hours.”

Are you looking at these sentences and feeling puzzled about what may be wrong with them? You’re probably not the only one, so let’s break down what the possible issue is.

The word “only” is what we call a modifier. It’s a modifier because it modifies or changes the meaning of other words in a sentence. The tricky thing with modifiers is that it’s very easy to misplace them. That is, it’s easy to unknowingly place them in the wrong spot in a sentence.

What happens when you misplace a modifier? You end up changing the meaning of a sentence in your ebook, blog post, investor summary, or report without even realizing it. Yikes!

In each of the sentences above, “only” is in the wrong spot, which makes the sentence mean something different from what we want it to mean. For example, the first sentence is supposed to say that we went to the gym for a grand total of five minutes yesterday (why did we even bother?). However, what it really says is that the only thing we did during the whole day yesterday was spend five minutes at the gym (which makes us sound even more lazy than the intended sentence does). Why does it say this instead? Because “only” comes before “went to the gym” instead of before “five minutes.” As a result, it ends up modifying or describing what we did yesterday (“went to the gym”) instead of the length of time that we did it for (“five minutes”).

Similarly, the second sentence is supposed to say that we sold eight bottles of Brand X shampoo last year. However, because of where “only” is placed, it actually says that the only thing we sold last year was eight bottles of Brand X shampoo; we didn’t sell any other products. (Let’s hope that we’re a hair salon that makes most of its money by offering hair cuts and not a beauty product store!)

In this second example, only” comes before “sold” instead of before “eight bottles.” Because of this, it ends up modifying what we sold in general last year instead of the number of Brand X shampoo bottles specifically.

So how do we change our sentences to make them say what we want to say? We need to move “only” so that it sits as close as possible to the words that it describes. For example, we would rewrite the sentences above like this:

  • “Yesterday we went to the gym for only five minutes.”
  • “This year, we sold only eight bottles of Brand X shampoo.”
  • “They dropped by for only a couple of hours.”

Using “Only” to Highlight Actions

In some cases, you may end up placing “only” in the right place in a sentence, but the meaning of your sentence may be unclear. This can happen when you try to express that someone did Action A but not Action B (or any other actions). For example, take a look at these sentences:

  • “They only filed the lawsuit yesterday.”
  • “Kathy only looked at wedding dresses on Wednesday.”
  • “Massimo only played soccer today.”

What’s the problem with these sentences? You can interpret each of them in at least two ways. For example, the first sentence could mean that the only thing “they” did all day yesterday was file the lawsuit; they didn’t do anything else. On the other hand, it could mean that they filed the lawsuit yesterday but didn’t do anything else with it; they didn’t take any further steps in the legal process.

Similarly, the second sentence could mean that looking at wedding dresses was the only thing Kathy did on Wednesday; she didn’t do anything else. However, it could also mean that Kathy looked at wedding dresses but didn’t do anything else with them; she didn’t buy or order one.

So how do you let someone know which way of interpreting the sentence you mean? If you’re speaking to someone in person, you can distinguish the two meanings based on the stress or emphasis you put on different words in the sentence. For example, if you want to say that Kathy looked at dresses but didn’t buy one, you could say this:

  • “Kathy only looked at wedding dresses on Wednesday.”

Here, you would place the stress or emphasis in the sentence on “looked.”

However, if you want to say that Kathy spent the whole day looking at dresses and didn’t do anything else, you could say this:

  • “Kathy only looked at wedding dresses on Wednesday.”

Here, you would place the stress or emphasis in the sentence on “only.”

Of course, if you’re using “only” in writing, you’ll need to use a different strategy to make sure that your reader knows which way of interpreting a sentence you mean. One way that you can do this is by clarifying what the subject of the sentence didn’t do. For example, if you want to say that Kathy looked at dresses but didn’t buy one, you could write this:

  • “Kathy only looked at wedding dresses on Wednesday; she didn’t buy one.”

By adding “she didn’t buy one” to the end of the sentence, you can make it clear to the reader that “only” refers to what Kathy did with the dresses.

If you instead want to say that Kathy spent the whole day looking at dresses and didn’t do anything else, you could write this:

  • “Kathy only looked at wedding dresses on Wednesday; she didn’t do anything else all day.”

By adding “she didn’t do anything else all day” to the end of the sentence, you can make it clear to the reader that “only” refers to what Kathy did on Wednesday.

Misplaced Modifiers Don’t Always Make Sentences Grammatically Incorrect

Note that even when you misplace “only” in a sentence, your sentence will probably still be grammatically correct. In our first set of example sentences above, “only” is in the wrong spot, but all three sentences still look and feel like grammatically correct sentences. After all, in some cases, you may actually need to say that you didn’t do anything yesterday except go to the gym or that you didn’t sell anything last year other than eight bottles of Brand X shampoo.

The key thing is to make sure that your sentences say what you want them to say. After all, the last thing that you want to do is accidentally mislead people in a how-to ebook, describe something in a confusing way in a blog post, or make your personal or professional success sound less impressive in a brand one-pager or personal statement.

In sum, be mindful of where you place “only” in a sentence, and be sure to place it as close as possible to the word that it describes. When you take the time to think carefully about where your words belong, you can communicate more clearly and competently.
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Want to know more about how making small mistakes in your writing can alter the meaning of your sentences? Check out our post on the difference between present tense and progressive tense.
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Where to place “only” in a sentence
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