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Be sure to put 'only' in its rightful place

Four little letters! When put properly together they spell O-N-L-Y, and when "only" is properly positioned in our writing, the gods of prose composition are greatly pleased.

Seriously, no little dog trick of the writing art is easier to master or more attractive in its application than the effective placement of this 14th-century adverb. Every year in this column we use the same shifting example of an altercation on a playground:

Only John hit Peter in the nose. (Other combatants may have hit Peter in the eye or belly or back, but only John hit Peter in the nose.)

John only hit Peter in the nose. (John didn't knife him or shoot him; he only hit him in the nose.)

John hit Peter only in the nose. (Or John hit Peter in the nose only. He didn't hit him on the eye or back or arm; he hit him only in the nose.)

John hit only Peter in the nose. (John didn't hit anyone else in the nose.)

The trick, of course, is to place the "only" as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. Remarkably, even experienced writers on well-edited newspapers mess up on "only," e.g.:

*In the Washington Post, in a story from New York on the sale of condominiums at the famed Plaza hotel: It's a lovely opportunity, but there's a catch: "Owners can only use their new home 120 days a year." (The drawback obviously is that owners may use their new homes only 120 days a year.)

*In the New York Times last month, in a column by the gifted Thomas Friedman dealing with two recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission: "Both are good suggestions, but they will only have a chance of being effective if we go a notch further." (Friedman is a clear thinker and a successful writer, but he might usefully have moved his "only" to a spot between "effective" and "if.")

*In an opinion last March by Justice John Paul Stevens in the Supreme Court: "In this case the 2nd Circuit held that the act only pre-empts state law class-action claims brought by plaintiffs who have a private remedy under federal law." (The circuit court meant that the act pre-empts only state class-action claims.)

*In a bobtailed clipping from Los Angeles about "the Pellicano wiretapping case," which until now seemed to be "the kind of down-and-dirty imbroglio that could only happen in Hollywood." (The writers meant that this down-and-dirty imbroglio could happen only in Hollywood.)

*From a headline last February in the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times: "White House: President only learned recently of hand-over to Arab firm." (The president learned only recently.)

*From an Associated Press story last year about minerals contained in dust samples captured by the Stardust spacecraft: "Such minerals only form in very high temperatures." (They form only in very high temperatures.)

*From an editorial last January in the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune: "Although Appalachia only produces about a third of the nation's coal, its people pay a disproportionately steep price." (It produces only about a third of the nation's coal . . .)

*From an article in the scholarly Journal of Supreme Court History: "James Clark McReynolds was a man who (!) people only spoke of in superlatives." (. . . people spoke of only in superlatives.)

Suggestion to writers of high and low degree, professionals no less than amateurs: Whenever you call upon an "only," read your sentence one more time.

Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is

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