Placement of adverbs - "only" and others

  • #1
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
7,583
1,472
A situation I often debate is where to place adverbs in a sentence, especially the adverb "only". Should I write "He only found it once" ? - or "He found it only once". I need some sort of rule to go by - to comfort me when I obey it and give me glee when I'm naughty and ignore it. (I don't need rule to make a binding decision, just a rule that will make the decision process more interesting).

Perhaps a good rule is to write in minimalist way and not use adverbs, but sometimes they cannot be avoided. (Or should I say "but they sometimes cannot be avoided"?)
 
  • Like
Likes fresh_42

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
21,105
4,934
I wish I had some hard rules for you, but I don't think I do. I think the placement decides what you want the emphasis on and how strong that emphasis is. Saying, "He only found it once" is, to me, 'weaker' than saying, "He found it only once". Putting "only" right in front of "once" emphasizes 'once' a great deal, whereas leaving it in front of "found" is more 'standard'. I guess you could say that "once" and "only" emphasize each other.

I'm not sure that same rule applies to all adverbs though. Unfortunately a lot of writing and grammar comes down to just 'having the ear' for it if that makes sense.
 
  • Like
Likes Stavros Kiri
  • #3
phinds
Science Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
16,740
7,429
I agree w/ Drakkith. There are no hard and fast rules or even any standard. It is purely a function of what you want to emphasize and also, unfortunately, different people will have a different "ear" for what sounds best so whatEVER way you choose there will likely always be some who think the other way would have been better.

Just as an example, consider the following

1) Thankfully, he was oblivious to the pain.
2) He was, thankfully, oblivious to the pain.

To my ear, in #2 the "thankfully" is something of a throwaway (becoming something of a parenthetical aside), putting the emphasis on the obliviousness and de-emphasizing the importance of the speaker whereas in #1, putting the "thankfully" up front puts slightly more emphasis on the speaker and seems to be implying some importance to the speaker's opinion.

But the important thing is that I have NO belief that everyone would agree with that point of view.
 
  • Like
Likes Demystifier
  • #4
berkeman
Mentor
59,074
9,175
Should I write "He only found it once" ? - or "He found it only once".
I try use RPN wherever possible...

"He found it once only. :smile:
 
  • Like
Likes Stavros Kiri and Stephen Tashi
  • #5
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
7,583
1,472
Yes, there is no correct rule for placing adverbs, but I'd be happy with an incorrect rule (similar to the familiar rule about using "which" versus "that" which was coined by Strunk and White http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/50years.pdf).

Even a plausible incorrect rule that applied in special cases would be interesting.


To wit:
When the verb "will" is used to indicate assent, the adverb "only", if used, shall be placed after it.
E.g. "He will only wash the windows." Not: "He only will wash the windows".
 
  • Like
Likes symbolipoint
  • #6
14,405
11,716
A situation I often debate is where to place adverbs in a sentence, especially the adverb "only". Should I write "He only found it once" ? - or "He found it only once". I need some sort of rule to go by - to comfort me when I obey it and give me glee when I'm naughty and ignore it. (I don't need rule to make a binding decision, just a rule that will make the decision process more interesting).

Perhaps a good rule is to write in minimalist way and not use adverbs, but sometimes they cannot be avoided. (Or should I say "but they sometimes cannot be avoided"?)
And to me it is even harder. In German you don't have strict rules where which part of the sentence has to be placed where, and to make it worse, no "ly" to distinguish between adverb and adjective: they are the same word. This means I have a completely different intuition and it's hard to figure out the correct English version.

I'm looking forward to this thread to learn rules about adverbs!
 
  • Like
Likes berkeman
  • #7
14,405
11,716
E.g. "He will only wash the windows." Not: "He only will wash the windows".
That's the obvious example of right and wrong. But what about: He will wash the windows only?
 
  • #8
berkeman
Mentor
59,074
9,175
I'm looking forward to this thread to learn rules about adverbs!
I think the thread is going swimmingly! :smile:
 
  • Like
Likes fresh_42 and phinds
  • #9
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
7,583
1,472
In German you don't have strict rules where which part of the sentence has to be placed where, and to make it worse, no "ly" to distinguish between adverb and adjective: they are the same word.
The mention of German reminds me of how varied the placement of "nicht" is in sentences. (Perhaps explained by https://www.thoughtco.com/the-position-of-nicht-1444481 ). For English speakers, It brings up the question of whether "not" is an adverb.

In English, the usage of "not" in examples like "I will give it my full attention - not!" is ironic and, I think, relatively modern.

A conjectured rule would be: "Not" is placed after the verb it modifies. However, there must be some interesting exceptions to that. There is also the complexity of the order of adverbs - "not only" versus "only not".

(If I write "He is not the only one" then is "only" an adjective?)
 
  • Like
Likes berkeman
  • #10
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
7,583
1,472
That's the obvious example of right and wrong. But what about: He will wash the windows only?
"He will wash the windows only", sounds correct to me, but very formal - something from a written contract.
 
  • #11
phinds
Science Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
16,740
7,429
The problem with the window washing examples (and my point is not limited to that example) is that the MEANING can change radically depending on the placement and how you interpret it

For example:

He will mess with the windows, but the ONLY thing he will do to them is to wash them

He will only wash windows, not other things.
 
  • Like
Likes Stephen Tashi
  • #12
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
7,583
1,472
The problem with the window washing examples (and my point is not limited to that example) is that the MEANING can change radically depending on the placement and how you interpret it

For example:

He will mess with the windows, but the ONLY thing he will do to them is to wash them

He will only wash windows, not other things.
Yes. The statement "He will wash the windows only" (to me) conveys that the windows will be washed, but that other things are not guaranteed to be washed. While "He will only wash he windows" might have the same meaning, but if it occured in a context where the windows needed repair, it would convey that the only service provided for the windows was washing. Additional services (washing or otherwise) might or might not be provided for non-window items.
 
  • #13
14,405
11,716
Funny enough, this example translated to German has far less varieties. Correct is: He will only the windows wash. or Only the windows will he wash. All others are wrong, and the English funny swap between object and predicate in the first sentence is equally funny in German if the correct English version will be translated word by word. I find the German version better, since only refers to the windows, not to the action! Why put it in front of the predicate?
 
  • #14
256bits
Gold Member
3,318
1,361
He will only wash windows, not other things
I think that should be,
He will only wash windows, not dry them.

as opposed to,
He will wash only windows, not other things.
 
  • #15
256bits
Gold Member
3,318
1,361
He will wash the windows only
The "only" is redundant.
He will wash the windows.
or,
He will not wash the windows.

Add a word to the end of the the sentence completes the thought.
He will wash the windows only tomorrow.
 
  • #16
mjc123
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
1,085
522
The difficulty arises because in spoken English the emphasis of the voice will usually tell you what "only" refers to, whereas in written English this clue is absent, and your sentence can be ambiguous. Consider the sentence "Catholics only eat fish on Fridays". Does this mean they eat only fish (and nothing else) on Fridays, or that they eat fish only on Fridays (and no other days)? In speech, the stress will tell you; in writing, it won't, though you may have some context to guide you (e.g. a discussion of what to eat on Friday).
The best rule in writing is generally to put "only" before the word or phrase it qualifies ("Catholics eat only fish on Fridays"). This may sometimes produce a sentence that reads less naturally than the colloquial order, but it is less ambiguous. The danger is to "write what you would say", when you don't realise the ambiguity for a reader, because you know what you mean.
 
  • #17
symbolipoint
Homework Helper
Education Advisor
Gold Member
6,115
1,161
"He will wash the windows only", sounds correct to me, but very formal - something from a written contract.
Knowing that an adverb may modify an adjective, or a verb, gives you a clue to which word next-to to put the adverb. I say "next-to" and not "which side".


"He will wash the windows only", not exactly what I just described, since here, this "adverb" seems to be working as an adjective, placing a restriction on windows, that windows will be affected but no other objects will be affected (washed). Now I wonder: Can "only" function as an adjective and not be restricted to usage as an adverb?
 
  • #18
34,688
6,394
Yes, there is no correct rule for placing adverbs
I disagree.
Per "Essentials of English," by Hopper, Gale, Foote, and Griffith, "adverbs should be placed next to the structures they modify."

E.g. "He will only wash the windows." Not: "He only will wash the windows".
Neither of these is very clear. A better construction would be "He will wash only the windows."

Regarding the first example above, "He will only wash the windows.", the implication is the he won't wipe them dry after washing them or do anything other than just wash them. In the second example, "He only will wash the windows", the implication is that he washes the windows with no one else helping.

In my example, the implication is that he's not also washing the doors or the walls.

I didn't find anything after a quick scan of my Strunk & White, and I don't have my copy of Fowler any longer, which I believe included an opinion similar to the one I quoted above. I also gave away my copy of "Chicago Manual of Style," which likely offered similar advice.

Disclosure: I used several English usage guides in my job as a technical writer for a large software firm.
 
  • Like
Likes Merlin3189 and PeroK
  • #19
34,688
6,394
The best rule in writing is generally to put "only" before the word or phrase it qualifies
+1
 
  • #20
mjc123
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
1,085
522
"He will wash the windows only", not exactly what I just described, since here, this "adverb" seems to be working as an adjective, placing a restriction on windows, that windows will be affected but no other objects will be affected (washed). Now I wonder: Can "only" function as an adjective and not be restricted to usage as an adverb?
In this example, it is acting as an adverb. It can be an adjective with the sense "sole" or "unique", e.g. "She is an only child"; "This is the only surviving original copy of Magna Carta".
 
  • #21
phinds
Science Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
16,740
7,429
The "only" is redundant.
He will wash the windows.
or,
He will not wash the windows.

Add a word to the end of the the sentence completes the thought.
He will wash the windows only tomorrow.
Nonsense. "He will wash the windows only" is a grammatically correct way of saying "he will wash the windows but he won't wash anything else."
 
  • #22
phinds
Science Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
16,740
7,429
I think that should be,
He will only wash windows, not dry them.

as opposed to,
He will wash only windows, not other things.
As I said earlier, opinions will often differ but they are rarely about grammatical correctness, just about the meaning of grammatically different constructs. You choose to interpret things differently than I choose to interpret things. That doesn't make either one of us right or wrong.
 
  • #23
gleem
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
1,775
1,123
I believe that only is preferred to be placed in this case next to once, the word that it most appropriately modifies. She finds things all the time but this thing only once. If "she only finds ........." .. you would expect to be told the conditions in which she finds. e.g. She only finds things under her nose.
 
  • #24
256bits
Gold Member
3,318
1,361
As I said earlier, opinions will often differ but they are rarely about grammatical correctness, just about the meaning of grammatically different constructs. You choose to interpret things differently than I choose to interpret things. That doesn't make either one of us right or wrong.
Neither right nor wrong, I'll agree, up to a point.
I just don't want to encourage people to speak like Yoda.
"Windows wash only he."
can be interpreted several ways:
1. He, and only he, washes the windows.
2. He washes the windows and does no other task to the windows.
3 He washes nothing else but windows.

Interpretation is the definitely the problem, and for a speaker or writer to convey the meaning of his words, so that misinterpretation is minimized to the audience, certain rules should be followed. In colloquial English, the meaning may not have so drastic consequences, but sign a contract, and have it turn sour, and people then definitely argue about meaning.
( or is it ..., and then people definitely argue about meaning. or... and people definitely then argue about meaning.)
(I'm not even sure if they mean the same thing........ -- generally, yes, but in the specific sense I would say not. )
That's pretty much what I was attempting to convey.
 
  • #25
Buzz Bloom
Gold Member
2,347
416
E.g. "He will only wash the windows." Not: "He only will wash the windows".
That's the obvious example of right and wrong.
Hi fresh:

I do not understand why you put forth this as an example of right vs. wrong. I find both sentences correct depending on the indented emphasis. The second sentence expresses the point with more emphasis if that is needed. The following is a dialog that illustrates this.

A: I want John to wash the windows and then mop the floor.
B: That is not what John does. He will only wash the windows.
A: But it is important that he also mops the floor.
B: You obviously fail to understand John's contract. He only will wash the windows.

Regards,
Buzz
 

Related Threads on Placement of adverbs - "only" and others

Replies
4
Views
2K
  • Last Post
2
Replies
46
Views
7K
Replies
4
Views
1K
  • Last Post
3
Replies
61
Views
7K
  • Last Post
4
Replies
98
Views
2K
Replies
32
Views
1K
  • Last Post
2
Replies
46
Views
4K
Replies
6
Views
4K
Replies
3
Views
2K
Top