Here is a bit of my favorite whimsy:
In general, English depends on word-order for meaning…and in general, most words will fill only a limited number of positions. If you take the following everyday-type sentence—“The carnivorous rats surrounded the blood-red barn”—and shift the main parts, chances are you will end up with:
Gibberish—“Surrounded the carnivorous rats the blood-red barn” and “Surrounded the blood-red barn the carnivorous rats” or
Surrealism—“The blood-red barn surrounded the carnivorous rats” or
A vague kind of Yoda-speak (and to get even that much sense you have to add a word)—“Surrounded the blood-red barn did the carnivorous rats.”
On the whole, subjects of sentences come first, followed by the action (the verb), and completed by whatever words or phrases are required by the verb. Adjectives usually come before nouns; adverbs before verbs or adjectives. There are, of course, exceptions to all of these generalizations, but following these conventions will usually result in intelligible English-sounding sentences.
There is one word, however, that basically ignores most of the accepted rules for its designated parts of speech. Only carries a wide range of meanings: as an adverb, it suggests ‘solely,’ ‘alone,’ ‘as recent as,’ and other possibilities; as an adjective, it emphasizes singularity—the only child, the only survivor, the one and only….
As an adverb, it should precede its verb or another adverb: “the only blue book.” As an adjective, it should precede its noun: “the only book.”
But the curious thing about only is that—unlike its fellow adverbs and adjectives—can often appear almost anywhere in a sentence, and with each new appearance it alters meanings and interpretations.
Let’s take a simple sentence: “I went to the store to buy a loaf of bread.”
Now watch the permutations possible when only shows up:
“Only I went to the store to buy a loaf of bread”—no one else accompanied me, I was by myself, since everyone else was too frightened of the carnivorous rats to go.
“I only went to the store to buy a loaf of bread”—that’s the solitary place I went, nowhere else. Don’t blame me if the bank down the street was robbed. Or, it could mean that buying bread was my solitary purpose for going there. I promise I didn’t by a Snickers bar along the way.
“I went only to the store to buy a loaf of bread”—again, the store was my solitary goal. I’m still not responsible for the bank robbery. And, no, I didn’t stop at the cleaners to pick up your laundry.
“I went to only the store to buy a loaf of bread”—as above, I visited no other outlets of commerce, but this time I’m more emphatic in saying so. This version sounds slightly non-idiomatic so it would probably not occur often.
“I went to the only store to buy a loaf of bread”—here I am, stuck in this hick farm town, surrounded by blood-red barns and carnivorous rats, and there is but a single store anywhere to be seen.
“I went to the store only to buy a loaf of bread”—I could have been shopping for a shotgun or a bazooka to take out the carnivorous rats, but all I actually wanted was a loaf of bread.
“I went to the story to only buy a loaf of bread”—Similar to the one above, less idiomatic, however, in part because of the apparent split infinitive, but more so because the structure places two vowels next to each other. To speak it requires a glottal stop—an awkward pause between the vowels to keep them from sliding into each other.
“I went to the store to buy only a loaf of bread”—an emphatic assertion. No matter what else might be offered on the shelves, I will be blind to all but that loaf blasted of bread.
“I went to the store to buy a only loaf of bread”—as it stands, this one is not English. However, with two small emendations, it become perfectly acceptable, and only fits comfortably in the slot. First, a and only begin with vowels. We could insert a glottal stop, but the conventions of English have long since provided a neater solution for a—add an n to the article, making the phrase the easily pronounced “an only.” Then, since the two resulting words contradict each other—a means ‘any one of several’ and only indicates singularity, and grammar won’t accept both—shift the general article a to the specific article the and we get the perfectly grammatical, “I went to the store to buy the only loaf of bread”—the single remaining loaf in the whole place. Whew! Took some work, but there is only, working hard for us as usual.
“I went to the store to buy a loaf only of bread”—That’s all, just bread. No cinnamon swirls, no raisins, no nuggets of unground wheat, just bread.
“I went to the store to buy a loaf of only bread”—This seems to mean the same as the one above, but it also seems awkward. Still, pronounced with sufficient emphasis on only, it does work…after a fashion.
“I went to the store to buy a loaf of bread only”—Nothing, not a half-price package of Gummi-Bears or a brand-new box of dynamite to blow up the blood-red barn and slaughter all of the carnivorous rats will deter me from my purpose. Just the Bread!
And there we have eleven out of twelve. And, as far as I know, only only can do that.
At least, I can only hope so.
Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical. His writing are available here, at starshineandshadows.com, at journalstone.com, and at hellnotes.com.