The lonely only

September 21, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Yes, yes, dear hearts, I have been away from here, neglecting you shamefully, but it has been a devil of a week: Stranded at my post with the presses running, waiting to see if anything from the West Coast game could make it into the paper.* Rising at dawn to instruct my young charges at Loyola. Preparing for and delivering an audio conference for Copyediting on the zombie rules.**

It was during the audio conference that I ran into a hard-core only-placer who was unmoved by my glib assurances and boyish charm. I quoted Jan Freeman verbatim, that ringing the changes on the placement of only in a sentence, a pastime beloved by the late James J, Kilpatrick,*** may amuse but which has little or no effect on the meaning. Not even that Olympian authority persuaded.

Let me explainstilted and  further. While it is possible to concoct awkward and unlikely examples, meaning is almost always clear in context, viz.:

If I say, "I only eat cheeseburgers on Friday," you are more likely than not to understand from the uncontextualized sentence that Friday is the only day on which I consume cheeseburgers. I could have said, "I eat cheeseburgers only on Friday," which sounds pompous. The former is perfectly natural English syntax.****

If the context is the occasions on which I eat fast food, then you can be assured of my meaning. If the context is that the rest of the family eats Indian takeaway on Fridays, then you will understand that I alone eat cheeseburgers on those days. If the context is what people do with cheeseburgers, you will understand that on Fridays I eat them and the rest of the week varnish them and line them up on the mantel.

But, as I conceded during the audio conference, this is America, and everyone is free to manipulate the placement of only in sentences. I see it as pointless and a waste of effort; others disagree.

*Really, the Orioles were much less trouble all those years they were hapless losers.

**Missed it, did you? I was in rare form.

***On whose views of language I place as much weight as his views on integration of the public schools.

****You can look it up in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. I'm not about to type five double-columned pages for you.

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