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GrammarCheck: "Only"

As part of our wide-ranging conversation on this blog, let’s discuss the word “only” and the two ways it is typically misused. Won’t that be fun? And edifying? Of course it will.

First Misuse: “Only” as synonym for “few.” This one has been creeping into even respectable writing of late, and it’s just silly. Here’s an example: “Joseph Ratzinger is one of the only people to become pope.” Here’s another: “Vancouver is one of the only places you can find excellent skiing and excellent kayaking.”

What’s the problem? The problem is that “only” means “one-ly,” as in just one. Ratzinger is one of the few people to become pope. He is the only pope at present. Vancouver is one of the few places you can ski and kayak. It is the only place you can do both of those and attend Regent College—as more of you should.

Get it? Good. Pass the word.

Second misuse: “Only” in the wrong place in the sentence. While not strictly incorrect, such misuse is misleading and therefore practically incorrect.

First example: “You would write better if only you would use this word correctly.” You can move “only” around in this sentence and there’s no change in meaning: “You would write better if you would only use this word correctly” or “You would write better if you would use this word only correctly.” No worries.

But here’s the second example: “You would make sense if only you would write this correctly.” Let’s move “only” and see what happens: “You would make sense if you would only write this correctly.” Now the retort would be, “But what if I don’t write it, but say it instead? Why is it only writing that is so affected?”

The author doesn’t actually mean “only writing,” of course. But moving “only” right in front of “writing” does give that impression.

Here’s a more dramatic one: “This box will explode only if placed by a fire.” Compare that with “This box will only explode if placed by a fire”—which implies that, if placed by a fire, the box won’t start singing and dancing, but will “only” explode.

Finally, “We can formulate correct doctrine only if we consult the Bible” (which means that theology must include the Bible) versus “We can formulate correct doctrine if only we consult the Bible” (which means that theology is formulated only by us) versus “We can formulate correct doctrine if we only consult the Bible” (which means that we consult the Bible, but we don’t have to submit to it) versus “We can formulate correct doctrine if we consult only the Bible” (which means the Bible, and not tradition or reason or experience, is our sole source for theology).

So use your “only’s” well, friends. Theological method itself may be at stake! (Not to mention Christmas presents placed near Yule logs…)

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