Some words in the English language take a whipping every day. Here is my pick for the most abused word in the English language.
Pop quiz time. Please read the following four sentences and tell me what’s wrong with them:
- He only ate the green peppers.
- They only had ten minutes to get there.
- She only wants a few firecrackers.
- We only ate a dozen hamburgers.
“Only” is a word with an unspoken implication – that there are many possibilities, but all are false except one.
In the first example above, the writer intends to say that he ate the green peppers, but he did not eat the red, yellow or orange peppers.
What he has in fact said is that he ate the green peppers, but he did not buy them or store them or cut them. He only ate them.
What he meant to say is “He ate only the green peppers”. He used the word “only” to modify “ate”, when he wanted it to modify “the green peppers”. You see the difference between “only ate” and “only the green peppers”?
Let’s try another one.
In the second example above, the writer intends to say that they had ten minutes and no more.
What he has in fact said is that they had ten minutes to get there and nothing else to help. No car. No feet. No map.
What he meant to say is “They had only ten minutes to get there”. He used the word “only” to modify “had”, when he wanted it to modify “ten minutes”. You see the difference between “only had” and “only ten minutes”?
Most people speak like this these days. But as writers, we are compelled to write with clarity, to say what we mean.
Shall we try one more? Right. Why not?
In the third example above, the writer intends to say that she wants a few firecrackers, but no more than a few.
What he has in fact said is that she wants firecrackers, but she does nothing else with them. She just wants them. She does not buy them. She does not set them off. She does not watch them explode. She only wants them.
What he meant to say is “She wants only a few firecrackers”. He used the word “only” to modify “wants”, when he wanted it to modify “a few”. Once again, you see the difference between “only wants” and “only a few”?
I’ll let you do the fourth example yourself. Maybe it would help if I share with you a sneaky little “cheat sheet” rule.
“Cheat sheet” rule
If you are not sure that you have placed “only in the right place, try this. Remove everything before “only”, so that the sentence starts where “only” begins. Then complete the sentence at the end with what you took from the beginning. Let’s do that with the four examples above.
- Only ate the green peppers, he.
- Only had ten minutes to get there, they.
- Only wants a few firecrackers, she.
- Only ate a dozen hamburgers, we.
Ouch. OK, let’s try these same examples with “only” in its proper place, then taking everything before “only” and moving it to the end of the sentence.
- Only the green peppers, he ate.
- Only ten minutes to get there, they had.
- Only a few firecrackers, she wants.
- Only a dozen hamburgers, we ate.
Ah…that’s better. It sounds a bit like Yoda speaking, but at least it makes sense.
You might argue some other words are abused more. I will grant that possibility. Listening to my teenage daughter and her friends talk, I am sure that “like” would be a candidate. And considering how often people say “they”, when they mean “he or she”, I would concede that “they” is also a strong candidate (but that is debatable). Or when referring to a company, many people use “they” instead of “it”.
Perhaps you have a favorite candidate for the most abused word in the English language. Feel free to rant about it in the comments below.