Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: I’m a retired English and Spanish teacher, and I am often called upon to proofread documents for the groups I belong to. One of my bugaboos is the misplacement of the word only in a sentence. Here’s an example: “Unlike other varieties of roses, green roses don’t have petals — they only have sepals which are green anyway. I corrected this to read they have only sepals which are green anyway.” Over and over again, I see only modifying a verb when it should be placed near the noun. Am I unduly sensitive about this?

I love your Saturday columns in the U-T. This morning my son caught me giggling as I was reading the paper. He knew I was reading your column! Keep up the good work! Sue Streeper, El Cajon

The placement of the modifier only is one of the trickiest procedures in English usage.  The most famous example of its vagaries is the song title “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Formalists argue that the only is mislocated in this title and that the statement misleadingly implies “I have eyes but no ears, noses or mouths for you,” rather than “I have eyes for you and nobody else but you.” They insist that only like hardly, nearly, almost, scarcely, even and just must appear right before the word modified, as in “I Have Eyes for Only You.”

In reality no intelligent listener or reader would misinterpret the song line “I only have eyes for you.” When only comes early in such a statement, the listener or reader is forewarned that the qualifier may be attached to almost any word that follows, and it is usually clear what that word is, as in this joke:

Have you read the news that the government has decided to start deporting senior citizens? Turns out we’re easier to catch. They’ll only have to build a wall three feet high. And we’re senior citizens, so we won’t remember how to find our way back home anyway.

I submit that, in the paragraph above, “They’ll only have to build a wall three feet high,” with its “misplaced” only, is more effective than “They’ll have to build a wall only three feet high.”

In general, though, when equally natural placements of the modifier only are available, a writer should put the adjective or adverb immediately before the noun or verb it modifies. For example, after hearing or reading the sentence “He only died yesterday,” a listener or reader might well ask, “‘Only died’? What could be worse?” Relocating the only to read “He died only yesterday” makes life easier for your listeners and readers.

So what’s the solution? God only knows. Or should that be “Only God knows”?

Thanks, Sue, for sharing your laughing moment reading my column, Sue. That reminds me of Groucho Marx’s letter to an author: “From the moment I received your book I’ve been laughing uproariously. One day I intend to read it!”

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DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: One of my pet peeves is people using the phrase “I could care less” when they really mean “I couldn’t care less.” Are they just lazy or do they not know what they are saying? Your thoughts please.

Also the phrase, “I mean” seems to be the new “you know.” It is used in conversation and in interviews all the time. –Kevin Schulte, Carlsbad

“I could care less” is widely criticized because if one could care less, then one cares to some extent. In contrast, “I couldn’t care less” indicates that the speaker cares very, very little, if at all, which is what the idiom is intended to mean.

“I mean” and “you know” are both send-receive statements that signify “Are you understanding what I’m saying?”

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DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: A recent Dear Abby column contained a response to a question of spouses honoring their anniversary: “The arrangements can be made by whomever is better at doing it, but gift-giving should be a two-way street.” I believe that the pronoun should be cast in the nominative case: whoever. -David Chadwick-Brown, San Diego

In the sentence you point out, whomever is indeed the subject of the verb is and should thus be nominative: whoever. Between you and I (ha ha), this kind of error is called “hypercorrection.” The object of the preposition by is the entire noun clause “whoever is better at doing it.”