Only connect! By Angela Caldin

E M Forster novelist

The full quotation in E M Forster’s Howard’s End goes like this, ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’

I often think of these lofty and powerful words when I’m pondering about where to position only in a sentence so that the meaning is clear. Some people get really excited about this and insist that only should be placed immediately before the word or phrase it modifies.

In this way, ‘He only gave me three books’ would be changed to ‘He gave me only three books.’

It seems to me that such a change is not really necessary and the meaning is clear either way.

In the same way, we don’t need to change the words of the song ‘I only have eyes for you,’ to ‘I have eyes for only you.’

The meaning seems to me to be clear wherever only is placed because of the context.

But I do know that the argument over the placement of only has been going on for centuries and that there can be ambiguity in some cases.

Examples given by a well-known grammarian whose name escapes me:

  • Only John hit Peter in the nose. (No one else hit Peter.)
  • John hit Peter only in the nose. (John didn’t hit him anywhere else.)
  • John only hit Peter in the nose. (John didn’t do anything else to him or his nose, e.g. trip him up or tickle him.)
  • John hit only Peter in the nose. (John did not hit anyone else.)

I guess the best rule of thumb is to put only as near as possible to the word or phrase it is modifying, but not to get too hung up about it because context is also important.

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