"Only" Is a Word Almost Everybody Misuses
Hint: You aren't the only one.
There are plenty of commonly misused words out there. Think back—way back—to your high school grammar classes, and you can probably tick off a list of them, from "irregardless" (there's no such word) to the ever popular "affect" versus "effect" conundrum.
Even if you don’t remember all those nit-picky grammar rules from way back when, you’ll often find it painfully obvious when another writer has broken one. You’ll get that “something’s a little off” feeling. Among my all-time favorite examples is, “Please remember to pray for those who have been sick in the bulletin.” (That might've been a gift from the late minister and humorist Grady Nutt—sure sounds like him.)
Misplaced modifiers are guaranteed to create sentences that are not only unclear but sometimes downright comical. This particular mistake might not draw your attention when you hear it, but you'll definitely spot it on the page. When the modifying word or phrase gets nudged too far away from whatever it’s modifying, confusion ensues: Bob walked to the store in green pants. (Since when did Piggly Wiggly wear pants?)
There’s a special category of these bad boys called “limiting modifiers”—words like almost, hardly, nearly, and the most misused and abused of all: only. They’re the grammatical equivalent to real estate: Location is everything.
Why? Because the job of a limiting modifier is to limit another word. Where you put it cues the reader as to what’s being corralled, so to speak.
Here’s an example:
I only read books when it rains.
You don’t read anything except books when it rains? Or you don’t read books when the weather’s sunny?
I read only books when it rains.
I read books only when it rains.
Here’s another one:
Our magazine only covers travel destinations in the South.
WHAT??!! No more Big White Cake? No more Grumpy? Only travel destinations?
Our magazine covers travel destinations in the South only.
Got it? Great. Now if only we could break ourselves of "might could." But it's just so darn functional . . .
WATCH: 10 Expressions That Require a Southern Translator