Where does the “only” go

Only be able to pick

In the past week, the rugby correspondent of the Guardian newspaper in England has written in two separate articles:

From next season the Welsh rugby coach will only be able to pick three wild card players.

Clear, isn’t it?  Well – no, it’s not.

What is clear is that the Welsh rugby coach is going have an inactive existence for the coming twelve months.

The sentence is saying that he will not be able attend training sessions and coach his team.  Nor will he be able to eat breakfast, go bungee jumping or run naked through the streets of Cardiff with a fried egg on his head.  This, plainly, will limit his effectiveness as an international rugby coach and his general enjoyment of life.

As written, “only” qualifies “be able to pick” which means that, in his position as coach, the only activity he will be allowed to engage in is to pick three wild card players – and nothing else.

I suspect “only” should be qualifying “three wild card players.”  Here is the original sentence followed by what I believe to be a more precise wording and clearer meaning:

From next season the Welsh rugby coach will only be able to pick three wild card players.

From next season the Welsh rugby coach will be able to pick only three wild card players.

Only started work

Another example for you to consider.  A friend of mine complained:

My brother only started work with the new company one week ago and now he’s got the sack.

I am sorry that his brother got the sack but I am not at all surprised if, after one week he had not done any work.

The utterance claims that he turned up, completed all the forms, sat at a desk and thereby fulfilled all the actions of starting work – but that’s all.  He did not do any actual work itself.

As written, “only” qualifies “started work” when it probably should be qualifying “one week ago”.  Again, here is the original sentence followed by what I believe to be a more precise wording and clearer meaning:

My brother only started work with the new company one week ago and now he’s got the sack.

My brother started work with the new company only one week ago and now he’s got the sack.

Only surgery or only relieve

A potentially more serious and more confusing situation is if a surgeon tells you:

The form of cancer you have can only be relieved by surgery.

What does the surgeon mean?

Is the surgeon saying that it is only surgery that can relieve this form of cancer – that no other medical action will be effective?

Or, is the surgeon saying that surgery can only relieve this form of cancer – but it cannot cure it.

There is a substantial difference in the two pronouncements, the meaning for those receiving the news and the subsequent actions.  What if you were the patient, or a relative, and were asked to give informed consent to proceed with treatment?  What would you be agreeing to?

As a guideline, adverbs such as “only” are better placed in a sentence next to the word or phrase they qualify so that there is no doubt which word or phrase they are meant to affect.

Otherwise, you might be inactive for a whole year or be agreeing to surgical procedures without knowing why.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *