Only

28th March 2003 at 00:00
The word only is a really powerful tool, but dangerous too. For example, if you write "Teachers only read The TES", what exactly do you mean? Think of the following four very different continuations.

Teachers only read The TES - you'd never catch one reading The Sun.

Teachers only read The TES - they do nothing else all day.

Teachers only read The TES - though they could wrap chips in it.

Teachers only read The TES - why would anybody else want to read it?

These four very different meanings all hang on the word only, so any writer should be aware of how this word works. Two things need attention: its meaning, and the role of intonation in speech.

Like so many small words, only carries a lot of meaning. It means something like "but nobodynothing else". For example: Only John came. = John came but nobody else did.

Only cats purr. = Cats purr but nothing else does.

I was only asking. = I was asking but I wasn't doing anything else.

I only drank water. = I drank water but I didn't drink anything else.

With that amount of effect, this is clearly a word to be encouraged. This meaning gives only a focus - a word or phrase in the sentence which it picks out for special attention. Take Only John came, where the focus of only is John - John, in contrast with everybody else who could have come.

Or I was only asking - asking, as opposed to the other things I might have been doing.

Now let's go back to our first four sentences, all containing the clause Teachers only read The TES. This could have at least four different meanings because four different words are potential focuses for only. Now try reading these sentences out loud, and listen to the way you automatically vary the intonation, the "melody" of speech. For example: Teachers only read The TES - you'd never catch one reading The Sun.

Teachers only read The TES - though they could wrap chips in it.

We predict that the first clause sounded quite different in each case, even though it is written exactly the same.

But where does this leave writing? No intonation, no intonation focus - danger! The problem, of course, is that grammar evolved first for speech, so that's where it works best. In writing we have to muddle through as best we can, using strategies for coping with the uncertainties of only - for example, end-position (Teachers read The TES only) or cleft sentence (It's only teachers that read The TES).

And, incidentally, only isn't alone. Much the same uncertainties arise with just, even, also and a few others. We just don't have space even for them this week.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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