I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on TheWeek.com; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

2 responses to “I only wanted to explain this

  1. Brian Hitchcock

    Funny that you didn’t mention the sequence option “I wanted to bake three cakes only.”, which succinctly conveys that the writer does not want to bake four or more.

    Nor “I wanted only to bake the three cakes.”, which clarifies both that there are exactly three cakes to be baked, and that the writer does not wish to frost, decorate or deliver them; as well as implying that the writer does not wish to do anything else for whatever event is being catered.

    On the other hand, maybe the writer meant “Only I wanted to bake three cakes.” (nobody else was willing).

    Brian Hitchcock
    Ex-Diabetic (and therefore an ex-cake-eater)

  2. I imagined something else from your specimen. Setting out to bake his cakes he finishes by burning down the house. “I only wanted to bake three cakes,” he says, looking away from the ruins.

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