“Only” is a common word, and it usually functions as an adverb or an adjective, meaning that it modifies a verb or a noun. Most people understand the basic definition of this word: alone, merely, exclusively. But it’s using “only” in the right place in a sentence that seems to trip people up.
English has parts of speech and a certain structure to its sentences which provide context and meaning to the words. Even if traditional word order is changed around – like, for example, when Yoda speaks – the words still have the same function and meaning.
The most common misuse of “only” is putting it in the wrong place in a sentence. For example:
I only want one doughnut.
Most people would understand this sentence to mean that the speaker wants one doughnut, no more. But grammatically, that’s not what this sentence says. Actually, this sentence isn’t necessarily incorrect – if the word you’re trying to modify is “want.”
When worded this way, “only” is modifying the word “want.” Adjectives and adverb usually come right before the noun or the verb that they are supposed to modify. What this sentence is actually saying is “Desire is the sole feeling I am experiencing. I do not need a doughnut, I do not wish for a doughnut, I don’t even kind of like doughnuts occasionally – my want is all that consumes me.”
Only I want one doughnut.
This wording could have two different meanings. Used this way, “only” can be replacing the word “but.” It could also be modifying “I,” thus indicating that no one else wants a doughnut. Again, technically the sentence is correct, but it may not be communicating the exact meaning that you intended.
I want only one doughnut.
Now “only” is modifying the number of doughnuts, indicating that one and no more is all that is desired.
I want one doughnut only.
Again, a correct sentence, but here the implication could be that one doughnut – and nothing else of any sort – is all that is desired. The “only” modifies the word “doughnut” more directly here, rather than modifying the word “one,” as in the previous example.
A lot of this depends on the context. If the scene is a buffet of many different foods, then “I want one doughnut only” could be appropriate if you are emphasizing your desire for a single doughnut instead of sampling the entire buffet.
Context applies to all of these examples. And context is part of why, especially when we’re talking, we frequently modify the wrong part of our sentences with “only.” Because of the context, others around know what is meant, and nobody thinks twice about it.
When writing (unless you’re writing a scene with realistic dialogue) it pays to double-check the placement of your “onlies.” Even if the reader can understand your meaning based on the context, if the work is a published story, a blog post, or a school paper, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
Examine the structure of the sentence to see which word “only” is emphasizing. Turn it into Yoda-speak if you have to:
Only one doughnut, I want.
See, even Yoda knows how to let you know that he wants a single doughnut, not the whole plate of Krispy Kremes.