Column: If I only had a time machine


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

I appreciate reader feedback, and I try to respond to each email and letter I receive. Believe it or not, at least seven of you are reading Grammar Guy on a consistent basis! That’s humbling.

If you had a time machine to go back and redo one moment of your life, what would you change? For me, I would learn where to place the word “only” in a sentence properly. This grammar faux pas of mine doesn’t get past you word nerds out there. In fact, I’ve received at least seven emails about my misplacement of “only” over the past few months. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to learn my lesson once and for all; after all, Grammar Guy should get this right (lest the readers think him a dullard).

Only is like a key fob with weak batteries—it’s effective just when it’s as close to the thing it’s modifying as possible. So, when you move “only” around in a sentence, it gunks up or completely changes the meaning of your sentence. The proximity of “only” to the word or phrase it modifies is crucial.

The more I look at the word “only,” the more it reminds me of the way we use the word “just.” In these examples, when you see “only,” substitute it in your mind with the word “just.”

Only vampires bite humans in the neck. This sentence implies no one besides vampires bites humans in the neck area.

Vampires bite humans only in the neck. Here, the implication is that vampires don’t bite humans anywhere else. Here’s a quick public service announcement: If you’re thinking about getting a neck tattoo, don’t.

Vampires only bite humans in the neck. This use of only here implies that vampires don’t do anything else to humans except bite their necks. Vampires don’t pick humans’ noses, they don’t style humans’ hair, and they don’t jiggle the loose skin on humans’ upper arms.

Vampires bite only humans in the neck. This suggests vampires don’t bite ostriches, giraffes, flamingos, or anything else in the neck—just humans.

Apparently, I understand grammar best when I use nerdy examples like vampires and time machines. And, now that I’ve learned my lesson, I can save my single-use time machine do-over for something else, like the time I attempted to iron my shirt while still wearing it.