Put ONLY in Its Place

A word’s placement makes a difference.

I have a beef with Safeway. They may know groceries, but they struggle with word order.

I cringe every time I hear this line in their radio ad: “Safeway only sells U.S.D.A. choice beef.”

What’s wrong with that? The placement of the word only.

In English, modifiers belong as close as possible to the word they modify. So Safeway isn’t claiming all the beef they sell is U.S.D.A. choice.

If that were the case, they’d say: “Safeway sells only U.S.D.A. choice beef.” No lesser grades sold there.

But that’s not what they said. The word only modifies sells.

They only sell it. They don’t loan it, barter it, or give it away.

If you want U.S.D.A. choice beef from Safeway, be prepared to pay. They only sell it. They don’t loan it, barter it, or give it way.

Am I being picky? Maybe. But consider this classic example of how the meaning changes when only gets moved.

Only John hit Peter in the nose.

John only hit Peter in the nose.

John hit only Peter in the nose.

John hit Peter only in the nose.

As you edit your work, check where you’ve put the modifiers. You won’t be the only one who notices.

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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