Tag Archives: writing

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.

“He or she”

You frequently read or hear sentences such as this:

“When a manager makes a decision, he or she has to consider all the facts.”

This “he or she” (have you ever read “she or he”?) has become the norm of pretend inclusivity.  The writer believes they are parading liberal values and are sending a message of inclusion and harmony.

Yet, the writer is making the exact opposite impact that they are intending to make.  They state that the people of the world are divided into two types: males and females.  Instead of creating a universal connection, they are emphasising a partition.

There has been a healthy and open debate in the UK over the previous two years about gender definition and sexuality.  This debate has challenged the stereotype of humans as being either male or female.

So, if you are broadminded and modern, why stop at only two types of gender identity?  Why not be brave and write:

“When a manager makes a decision, she or he or lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender or questioning has to consider all the facts”

A second technique employed by authors who wish to parade their liberal attitudes and assert equality, is to switch gender at the start of a chapter or new section.  No, the author does not change gender, I mean the subject they are writing about.

The protagonist – a manager, for example – hitherto masculine, has now changed gender.   This is distracting and irritating.

You hurriedly scan the previous paragraphs, searching for the initial reference to this newly mentioned female.  Have you jumped a page?  Have they undergone an operation or has a miracle occurred?

No, changing the gender of the protagonist is an attempt at inclusion and to provide balance.  Yet, by doing so, they divide the world in two and draw attention to differences – the exact opposite of their original intent.

So, am I going to analyse and criticise, but provide no positive ideas?  Well, how about this:

“When a manager makes a decision, they have to consider all the facts.”