If only it were that easy...


“Make sure you only work with licensed professionals.”

There’s some stickler bait in that sentence. Can you spot it?

An article I edited recently contained a sentence like this. I homed in on the problem and, with imaginary sticklers hounding me from the recesses of my mind, transformed it into a sentence I knew they’d like better.

The word in question, if you haven’t caught it yet, is “only.” The problem, if you can call it that, is its location.

Here’s the sticklers’ story (which they’re sticking to): “Only” modifies only the word immediately next to it. In this case, that word is “work,” which makes “only” an adverb in this sentence because it’s modifying a verb. So if “only” points only to the verb work, our sentence means: You should only work with those licensed professionals. Don’t chat with them. Don’t dance with them. And whatever you do don’t take candy from them.

We can see that’s not what the writer meant. Clearly the message is that you want to hire licensed pros instead of unskilled hacks or untrustworthy shysters.

So I scooched the word “only” one place the right: Make sure you work only with licensed professionals. But I already had my nitpicker hat on, so that seemed funny, too. “Only with”? I can’t work alongside licensed professionals? Or for them? Or under their supervision? Does the putting “only” before “with” take all those other options off the table?

I tried moving “only” another place to the right. “Work with only licensed professionals.” That seemed better, even though under my mental magnifying glass anything was going to look \a little weird. Staring too intently at the screen, I wondered: Is there no alternative to licensure that would be as good or better? What if the state I’m in doesn’t issue licenses for these professionals? Would a certificate of some kind be as good?

I spent about two nanoseconds wondering whether “only” should be moved yet one more position to the right: “Make sure you work with licensed only professionals.” But you can see why I didn’t linger on that idea very long.

I went back to “only licensed professionals” and left it at that.

But was all that even necessary?

For most English speakers and writers, I can answer that question with “definitely not.” There’s no rule that says that “only” must sit right next to the word it modifies. Like a lot of adverbs, it can move around the sentence. “Fortunately, Cary and Stella knew the solution” and “Cary and Stella, fortunately, knew the solution” are equally grammatical and, we could argue, equally clear.

The same is true when “only” is an adjective: Eat only vegetables. But there’s no rule that says you can’t use it adverbially by positioning it in front of the verb: “Only eat vegetables,” that’s legitimate, too, if it says what you want to say.

But technical correctness isn’t good enough when you’re editing someone else’s writing for publication. We editors try to champion the reader by asking: Which form gets the message across best? Is one structure less ambiguous than another? We opt for precision over ambiguity. Which is why “Eat only vegetables” would be my choice over “Only eat vegetables.”

But there’s another reason why I usually opt for stickler-preferred options: the sticklers themselves. Some people notice the little things. And an editor’s job is to smooth over any little infelicities that might distract readers from the message. If a stickler gets stuck on a perceived error I could have avoided, I’ve failed him or her, even if it wasn’t an error.

And that’s why I try to keep “only” as close as possible to the word it modifies, even knowing that’s not my only option.

-- June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.