Tag Archives: placement of only

You live only once

bmw adThe acronym YOLO (you only live once) was in the running for 2012 Word of the Year according to the people at Oxford American Dictionary. Several things about that idea gave me heartburn, especially the fact that YOLO involves a misplaced adverb.

Writers frequently place only in a less-than-ideal position in sentences. In my editing, I relocate only several times each week, to remove ambiguity. Only is routinely misplaced in conversation, and that’s not such a big deal. But when it’s time to put words in writing, thoughtful communicators should be more careful.

BMW has adopted the slogan, “We only make one thing.” But BMW does not only make one thing. The maker of the ultimate driving machine also designs that thing, markets that thing, and finances that thing. The slogan should be “We make only one thing.”

A misplaced only can cause confusion for readers.

If I wrote, “I am only editing two reports,” would you know what I meant? Maybe I meant that I’m not drafting the reports or printing the reports; I’m only editing them. How would you be sure of my meaning?

I should write, “I am editing only two reports.” A better placement of only, close to the word being modified, removes the ambiguity: I’m not editing three or four reports; only two reports.

The so-called word YOLO might lose some of its zing if the adverb were better placed and it became YLOO. But writers ought to try to place only in the position that best helps readers understand which word or phrase is being modified.

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