Misplaced Onlys

A common error among writers is the misplaced only. Here are some examples of misplaced onlys, but initially it might not be obvious why these sentences are incorrect:

1. Recent research suggests that learners benefit more from feedback that is only provided when it is requested.

2. If a coach tells an athlete, "Good job," after every attempt, it is probably for motivational purposes, but if the coach only says this after high-quality attempts, the statement might also reinforce the correct behavior it follows.

3. Under most federations' rules, the number only needs to be worn for the running part of the triathlon.

Here are correct versions of those sentences:

1. Recent research suggests that learners benefit more from feedback that is provided only when it is requested.

2. If a coach tells an athlete, "Good job," after every attempt, it is probably for motivational purposes, but if the coach says this only after high-quality attempts, the statement might also reinforce the correct behavior it follows.

3. Under most federations' rules, the paper number needs to be worn only for the running part of the triathlon.

The rule for only is that it should be placed directly in front of the word it modifies. In the first example, the original sentence has the only in front of the verb, so it's saying that providing is the only thing that feedback does. But it's more likely that the author wants to emphasize the time that the feedback is provided, so the only should appear before the adverb phrase when it is requested.

The second example and third example are similar to the first. The emphasis should be on the time, not the action.

To develop your only awareness, try this exercise, which I lifted from Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer (1965). Bernstein lifted it from Merriam's Word Study (don't know the date of that publication):

Eight different meanings result from placing only in the eight possible positions in this sentence: "I hit him in the eye only yesterday." What are the distinct meanings?

Only I hit him in the eye yesterday.

I only hit him in the eye yesterday.

I hit only him in the eye yesterday.

I hit him only in the eye yesterday.

I hit him in only the eye yesterday.

I hit him in the only eye yesterday.

I hit him in the eye only yesterday.

I hit him in the eye yesterday only.