Pop quiz time! If I want you to play a song just for me and I don’t want you to play it for anyone else, where in my sentence do I put only?
- Only play me a song.
- Play only me a song.
- Play me a song only.
If you chose number 2, you’re right. But why?
Only is a delightful little word that can act as an adjective or an adverb; it can modify nouns, verbs, and even other adjectives. Neat trick, only. This means, of course, that where only appears in the sentence is very important because it can modify just about whatever it precedes. Our natural tendency, says Oxford Dictionaries, is to put only as early as we can in the sentence. But as you can see from our examples, location is everything. Your best bet is to put only as close as you can to the word you want it to modify:
Only Sean loves chocolate cake.
Sean loves only chocolate cake.
Sean only loves chocolate cake.
In the first sentence, Sean is the only person who loves chocolate cake (and if you know me, you know how untrue that is!). In the second sentence, Sean doesn’t love any other kind of cake or perhaps doesn’t love anything else we might be talking about.
Strictly speaking, the last sentence means that Sean loves chocolate cake, but he doesn’t make it or eat it or anything else. But I’ll bet you read it the same way you read the second sentence. This supports Oxford’s statement that we put only early in the sentence, and usually no ambiguities result. And I’d say that in conversation or in casual writing, you can do that. But in formal writing or in statements that will carry more responsibility that claiming my son’s love of chocolate cake, your best bet is to ensure only is snuggled up next to the word it modifies.