Simple, clear help for your writing problems

Ryan Seacrest said this at the end of an installment of American Idol: In the end there can only be one American Idol. Don’t count this mistake among your writing problems.

Mistake? You ask. This sentence could easily mean that the only thing left in creation at the end of the show is an American Idol. Consider: …there can only be one American Idol implies that nothing else at all can exist.

It seems likely Mr Seacrest was telling us that eventually there would be one American Idol. His statement would be clear if he simply omitted the word only so the sentence became In the end there can be one American Idol. By misplacing the word only in an attempt to add emphasis, he has, instead, made the statement unclear.

Put Only Where it Belongs

The statement, In the end there can be one American Idol is clear. Spoken emphasis on the word one achieves Seacrest’s intent. However, if you really need to use the word only, use it as follows: In the end there can be only one American Idol.

This minor rewrite of Seacrest’s sentence ties the words only and one together. It leaves the possibility that there can be other things besides that one American Idol.

Use Only Sparingly and Appropriately

Consider the title of this post: Today, Only Fix One of your Writing Problems. It suggests that the only thing you should do today is fix one of your writing problems. If it must include the word only, the title should be, Today, Fix Only One of your Writing Problems. With that change, it suggests you should fix one writing problem, but let the others go for today. It doesn’t forbid you from doing other things.

When you use only in a sentence, reread the sentence carefully and decide whether only is in the right place. Here are some examples to help you recognize how a misplaced only changes the meaning of your words:

The sentence: You should only move this box.

Means: You should do nothing except move this box.

In contrast:

The sentence: You should move only this box.

Means: This box is the only thing you should move… but there may be other things for you to do as well.

Here’s another:

The sentence: Are you only giving me a tomato?

Means: Are you doing nothing more than giving me a tomato?

In contrast:

The sentence: Are you giving me only a tomato?

Means: Are you giving me nothing more than a tomato? I understand that you may do other things as well.

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