Wednesday, 25 June 2014

if only…

Our Language by English professor Simeon Potter, which was first published in 1950, is the kind of book that you can dip into from time to time and learn something new, even if you have previously read it from cover to cover. During one such recent dip, I came across the following passage:
Another interesting thing we shall observe is the way in which natural emphasis overrides strict logic in word order. ‘He only died last week’ may be denounced by modern precisians on the ground that it flouts one of those rules of proximity whereby the modifying adverb should be placed as near as possible to the word, phrase or clause it modifies. ‘He died only last week’ or ‘It was only last week that he died’ should stand. Stress, intonation, and pause, however, make everything clear, or even clearer, when only is detached. ‘He only died last week’ implies no ambiguity and no misplaced emphasis.
Professor Potter continues by citing a concrete example:
Mr Vernon Bartlett once opened a wireless talk on world affairs with the words: ‘I am not an expert on China. I have only been there twice in my life’. Natural emphasis and intonation were just right: the hearer’s attention was arrested at once. ‘I have been there only twice in my life’ would have sounded unnatural and pedantic in comparison.
It is with diffidence that I challenge the conclusions of such an eminent linguist, but the first point to make is that the example selected is an example of spoken English, and there are many subtle differences between the spoken and written versions of a language. Professor Potter may be right to point out the value of stress and intonation in the conveyance of meaning, and that it isn’t always necessary to adhere to strict rules of grammar when speaking, but written English requires a stricter interpretation of the rules.

Naturally, I wondered what Henry Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, had to say on the subject. Although this book was published as long ago as 1926, it is still a useful guide for anyone who cares about the clarity and precision of what they write:
I read the other day of a man who ‘only died a week ago’, as if he could have done anything else more striking or final; what was meant by the writer was that he ‘died only a week ago’. There speaks one of those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved, one of the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion, and wish to restrain liberty as such, regardless of whether it is harmfully or harmlessly exercised.
It looks as though I’m on the wrong side of the argument. Fowler, in his inimitable style, provides a detailed explanation:
…illogicalities and inaccuracies of expression tend to be eliminated as a language grows older and its users attain a more conscious mastery of their materials. But this tendency has its bad as well as its good effects; the pedants who try to forward it when the illogicality is only apparent or the inaccuracy of no importance are turning English into an exact science….

The design is to force us all, whenever we use the adverb only, to spend time in considering which is the precise part of the sentence strictly qualified by it, and then put it there—this irrespective of whether there is any danger of the meaning’s being false or ambiguous because only is so placed as to belong grammatically to a whole expression instead of to a part of it….

It may at once be admitted that there is an orthodox placing for only, but it does not follow that there are not often good reasons for departing from orthodoxy. For he only died a week ago no better defence is perhaps possible than that it is the order that most people have always used and still use, and that, the risk of misunderstanding being chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.… But take next an example in which, ambiguity being practically possible, the case against heterodox placing is much stronger: Mackenzie only seems to go wrong when he lets in yellow [a reference to colour printing]. The orthodox place for only is before when, and the antithesis between seeming to go and really going, though not intended, is apt to suggest itself, makes the displacement here ill advised.
Fowler summarizes his recommendations in the final paragraph:
The advice offered is this: there is an orthodox position for the adverb, easily determined in case of need; to choose another position that may spoil or obscure the meaning is bad; but a change of position that has no such effect except technically is not only justified by historical and colloquial usage but often demanded by rhetorical needs.
The key point, though, is that written English doesn’t come with helpful auditory clues, so any deviation from these rules does run the risk of creating ambiguity. It is significant that both academics chose as their heterodox example the act of dying, which has the singular effect of excluding the subject of that verb from being the subject of another verb for evermore. It is therefore easy to see that ‘only’ must refer to another part of the sentence.

If, instead of dying we substitute a common action such as attending a meeting, then the arguments put forward by the two eminent professors are fatally weakened:
He only attended the meeting last week.
He attended the meeting only last week.
These are possible answers to two different questions. The first version implies that the subject attended the meeting but didn’t contribute to the discussions, while the second suggests that prior to last week’s meeting, his attendance record has been questionable.

To further illustrate this point, I imagine a garage that both repairs and services motor vehicles. It wants to erect a sign to let potential customers know about its services. There are three options:
The subtext of #1 is that you cannot get your van or minibus serviced on a Saturday, only your car; of #2 that you cannot get your car repaired on a Saturday, only serviced; and of #3 that you cannot get your car serviced during the rest of the week, only on a Saturday. In other words, changing the position of ‘only’ alters the meaning of the sentence, and which of the three options the garage chooses must reflect the services it does offer, or it runs the risk of attracting a torrent of abuse from would-be customers who feel they have been misled.

There is another consideration: the use of ‘only’ ironically, as in the following exchange:
What has X done for [insert your favourite football team here]?

He’s only scored thirty goals this season.
It clearly makes no sense for the respondent in this exchange to say “He’s scored only thirty goals this season”, because a tally of thirty goals in a season is one that any striker would be proud to have notched up. What he is really saying is along the lines of “What more do you want?”

What conclusions can be drawn from this discussion? The principal use of language is to convey meaning, and grammatical rules are there to help in this process, although this is not to suggest that such rules should always be followed. However, if you do break such a rule, whether deliberately or in ignorance, then you should be aware of the possible ambiguities in your message.

If only it was that simple.


  1. Not much of a problem, Dr. Dennis, since writing, as we know it, is going away and being replaced by talking-writing. If you doubt that, I WILL NOW "SCREAM" MY POINT. Having only said that, please continue keeping the faith.

    1. Only you could make so much noise Bruce.


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