Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Kilpatrick’s Rule Works Only Sometimes

Posted by Neal on January 7, 2009

It’s January, and you know what happens in January, right?

Yes, yes, of course there’s the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. That goes without saying. And of course, the concurrent meeting of the American Dialect Society, with its annual, headline-grabbing Word of the Year selection. I meant the other thing that happens in January: the publication of James J. Kilpatrick’s annual column on only! Here’s how it begins this year:

kilpatrick_jamesEvery January for 20 years I’ve written an “only” column. The theme’s the same: No little dog trick of the writer’s art will sharpen your style quite so effectively as the proper placement of “only.” And its mastery is no trick at all.

The annual illustration remains the same. Several schoolboys get into a fistfight. They are hauled off to the principal’s office. There we learn that (1) only John hit Peter in the nose, (2) John hit Peter only in the nose, (3) John only hit Peter in the nose, and (4) John hit only Peter in the nose. The elements of the offense are now clear. Punishment may be fairly administered. Justice has been served.

The trick is to snuggle the limiting “only” as closely as possible to the noun [sic] it modifies. It works every time.

Kilpatrick’s example is clever, and does illustrate the difference that the placement of only can make. And when he says to put only as close as possible to the noun it modifies, I’m sure he meant word, since Kilpatrick certainly knows that hit is a verb, and in a preposition. The trouble is that Kilpatrick’s rule doesn’t work every time. (And when I say it doesn’t work every time, I mean that it is not the case that it works every time, not that it never works.) He is assuming, and leading his readers to believe, that the only things that only can modify are words. In fact, it can modify whole phrases. Allow me to repeat some of what I said in my review of Grammar Girl’s book. (If Kilpatrick can recycle chunks of his material, so can I. And I don’t even get paid for it!)

[I]n the entry on misplaced modifiers, Fogarty gives these two sentences:

Squiggly ate only chocolate.
Squiggly only ate chocolate.

Both sentences are grammatically correct, but they don’t mean the same thing. Fogarty argues that the second sentence means “all Squiggly did with chocolate was eat it. He didn’t buy, melt, or sell it. He only ate it.” Indeed, it can mean this—if you say it with the emphasis on ate. However, it can also mean that all Squiggly ever did was eat chocolate; he never played baseball, wore sweaters, or drank cappuccino in Italian restaurants with Oriental women. How will you know the difference? By intonation and context. And this where Fogarty falls into the same trap that ordinary grammar mavens fall into: In spoken English, intonation is part of the grammar that tells you what only is restricting. In only ate chocolate, the word only can apply to just the verb ate (Fogarty’s reading); to the entire verb phrase ate chocolate (my alternative reading); and indeed, to just the direct object chocolate (the supposedly incorrect reading that means the same as Squiggly ate only chocolate). Certainly, if you can reduce ambiguity in your writing by judicious placement of only, you should do so, but there are cases where ambiguity persists regardless of how carefully you position the only. Fogarty’s failure to recognize this could confuse readers who wonder why Squiggly only ate chocolate can’t mean that all he ever did was eat chocolate, and leave them less confident than before on how to handle only.

Similar comments apply to only hit Peter in the nose.

Aside from the ambiguity that can’t be eliminated by careful placement of only, there’s another ambiguity in Kilpatrick’s example that can be eliminated this way. In his sentence (2), only is not modifying just the preposition in — unless we allow that it needs to be established that John hit Peter in the nose, not above it, below it, or around it. But of course, that’s unrealistic, you say. When would a situation ever arise where we had to make a distinction like that? I agree, not often; but Kilpatrick is all about precision in getting exactly the meaning you want when you use only. If he wants only to narrow down just what parts of Peter’s body John hit, he should follow his own advice and put only as close as possible to the noun it modifies, and write John hit Peter in only the nose. Now Kilpatrick could respond: “Only is limiting general regions of the body: in the nose as opposed to in the stomach, on the ears, or about the head and neck.” That’s fine. In that case, only is modifying neither the preposition nor the noun, but the entire prepositional phrase. And if you recognize (once again) that only can modify an entire phrase, then you have to admit that it’s syntactically ambiguous whether this particular only is modifying just the in that it’s next to, or the entire in the nose that it’s next to.

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9 Responses to “Kilpatrick’s Rule Works Only Sometimes”

  1. Jonathon said

    There’s something terribly depressing about the assertion that shuffling your onlys around is the best thing a writer can do to improve his or her writing.

  2. A good read!

    So many of the troubling things that grammar mavens say could become so helpful if only they’d tone down the language just a little bit: “Precise placement of ‘only’ is imperative” is misleading. “Be aware of the ways you can shade meaning through placement of only” is helpful.

    I, personally, have come around quite a bit on this issue. In writing, I’ve suggested the former. Though I now believe the latter.

    Sometimes it seems that, though the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist wars are downright silly and ego-driven at times, they’re providing a good service: They’re bringing to light what’s really important. Following “rules” is not what’s important. Understanding the grammar behind them is what matters because then you can make your own choice!

    – June

  3. david said

    you might be inferring this, but Kilpatrick actually misses out
    5) John hit Peter in only the nose (not in the eye or in the gut)
    6) John hit Peter in the only nose (his sole olfactory organ)

    and this blows “as closely as possible to the [word] as possible” out of the water

  4. ruakh said

    #2 (“John hit Peter only in the nose”) is also ambiguous, since even when “only” is placed adjacent to what it modifies, and given narrow scope, there are cases where it can either precede or follow it. In this case, both:

    – John hit Peter {only in the nose}, not in the mouth.
    – John hit {Peter only} in the nose; everyone else, he merely tapped.

    are grammatical. (I find the latter a bit stilted, but I’m almost positive it’s standard.)

  5. Neal said

    Jonathon: I’m enjoying my cool T-shirt that my wife gave me for Christmas!

    June: Thanks for stopping by! I agree about the toning down for greater usefulness; the trouble is that even when grammarians propose some reasonable guideline with room for exceptions, it usually gets intensified and made rigid by its propagators. Fowler only made a recommendation about something writers might consider doing with that and which, and now look how far it’s been taken. The same with passive voice.

    David and Ruakh: You’re right, of course. I think I even considered saying something about the only nose, but eventually left it out, thinking, “It’s common knowledge that normal people only have, uh, have only one nose each, so I won’t complicate things.” But if we want to be precise with our onlys, and illustrate all the possible meaning changes it can wreak, then we need to consider the only nose and postmodifying only.

  6. Jonathon said

    Neal: Awesome! Glad you like it.

  7. […] where the rule for only propounded by James Kilpatrick (and numerous other writers on language) doesn’t work. Put only next to the manly men and one interpretation is for it to semantically scope over the […]

  8. Glen said

    On reading this again because of your Twitter link (after Kilpatrick’s death), I noticed a potentially confusing typo. In your final paragraph, you say you’re discussing Kilpatrick’s sentence (4), but I’m pretty sure you mean sentence (2).

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