GrammarCheck: "Only"

As part of our wide-ranging conversation on this blog, let’s discuss the word “only” and the two ways it is typically misused. Won’t that be fun? And edifying? Of course it will.

First Misuse: “Only” as synonym for “few.” This one has been creeping into even respectable writing of late, and it’s just silly. Here’s an example: “Joseph Ratzinger is one of the only people to become pope.” Here’s another: “Vancouver is one of the only places you can find excellent skiing and excellent kayaking.”

What’s the problem? The problem is that “only” means “one-ly,” as in just one. Ratzinger is one of the few people to become pope. He is the only pope at present. Vancouver is one of the few places you can ski and kayak. It is the only place you can do both of those and attend Regent College—as more of you should.

Get it? Good. Pass the word.

Second misuse: “Only” in the wrong place in the sentence. While not strictly incorrect, such misuse is misleading and therefore practically incorrect.

First example: “You would write better if only you would use this word correctly.” You can move “only” around in this sentence and there’s no change in meaning: “You would write better if you would only use this word correctly” or “You would write better if you would use this word only correctly.” No worries.

But here’s the second example: “You would make sense if only you would write this correctly.” Let’s move “only” and see what happens: “You would make sense if you would only write this correctly.” Now the retort would be, “But what if I don’t write it, but say it instead? Why is it only writing that is so affected?”

The author doesn’t actually mean “only writing,” of course. But moving “only” right in front of “writing” does give that impression.

Here’s a more dramatic one: “This box will explode only if placed by a fire.” Compare that with “This box will only explode if placed by a fire”—which implies that, if placed by a fire, the box won’t start singing and dancing, but will “only” explode.

Finally, “We can formulate correct doctrine only if we consult the Bible” (which means that theology must include the Bible) versus “We can formulate correct doctrine if only we consult the Bible” (which means that theology is formulated only by us) versus “We can formulate correct doctrine if we only consult the Bible” (which means that we consult the Bible, but we don’t have to submit to it) versus “We can formulate correct doctrine if we consult only the Bible” (which means the Bible, and not tradition or reason or experience, is our sole source for theology).

So use your “only’s” well, friends. Theological method itself may be at stake! (Not to mention Christmas presents placed near Yule logs…)

0 Responses to “GrammarCheck: "Only"”

  1. Cameron


    The first doctrine in the Salvation Army ‘Articles of Faith’ states:

    ‘We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.’

    You know, I thought they might actually do more than just that!

  2. Steve W.

    It seems that “only” doesn’t have to mean just one, but can mean “merely”. This means that you could say that there have been only 265 (!) popes in history. According to the dictionary on my Mac (which may be incorrect), the word can be defined as:

    1 and no one or nothing more besides; solely or exclusively : there are only a limited number of tickets available | only their faith sustained them.
    • no more than (implying that more was hoped for or expected); merely : deaths from heart disease have only declined by 10 percent | she was still only in her mid-thirties.

    Wait a minute…shouldn’t that say “…have declined by only 10 percent…”?

  3. John Stackhouse

    Thanks, Brother Cameron, for this real world example.

    Thanks also, Brother Steve, for raising one of the few exceptions to the rule–although even then, Merriam-Webster places “merely” under this general definition: “as a single solitary fact or instance or occurrence : as just the one simple thing and nothing more or different.”

    You’re one of the few (not “only”!) people who might notice that alternative. Well done!

  4. F.

    With the first example, I wonder if you’re showing a degree prescriptivism which is rather pedantic, and not particularly useful. When it’s become so commonplace a usage, and is appearing in writing which even you consider respectable, mightn’t it be time to expand the definition, where its narrowness serves no practical purpose? I’m not asserting this – just wondering.

  5. John Stackhouse

    Thanks, “OftL”!

    As for “F.,” you may be right, of course. And if “only” keeps being (mis)used this way, it will eventually be (conventionally) correct.

    But remember your Burke: “All it takes for evil to flourish . . . ” etc.!

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