Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
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 Mr. Lederer: My complaint is about the oft misused word only. My late high school English teacher must ache in her grave about its misuse today versus what she taught us back in the 1940s. Would you please offer a definitive statement on the correct use of only? — Richard Jones

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 three-liner joke: Have you read the news that the government has decided to stop deporting unauthorized immigrants? Instead, they’re going to start deporting senior citizens. Turns out we’re easier to catch. They’ll only have to build a wall threefeet 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”?

Dear Mr. Lederer: I taught English for years, even publishing a writing text for college students. Don’t know what bothers me most about the state of our usage, but I swear I am going to put together an apostrophe treatment kit that includes black and white paint to make corrections in a myriad of places.

But this note is to tell you of one student about whom I still chuckle, a tenth-grader who asked “How can we put our best foot forward?” during a lesson on comparatives and superlatives. Yes, indeed, language is fun. — Judy White

When you “put your best foot forward,” you extend one of two feet, and “may the best team win” usually refers to one of two teams. These have become ingrained idioms, so puristically to say or write, “put your better foot forward” and “may the better team win” would be somewhat off-putting.

Here’s a riddle that depends on one’s knowledge of the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives: I used to live in a tiny town in New Hampshire. Mary was the only other writer who lived in that town, and she was the best writer in the United States. But she was not the best writer in my town. How can that be?

The answer is that because only two writers lived in our little town, Mary was the better writer, but not the best.

Dear Mr. Lederer: One often sees locutions such as “He is older than me.” Is it not better to say, “He is older than I [am old]”? — Tom Litchfield

Than is a subordinating conjunction, not a preposition, so it doesn’t exert force on an ensuing pronoun. You are correct that the pronoun in your sentence should properly be I, followed by the understood verb am.

Dear Mr. Lederer: Which is correct?: “I don’t like him eating with his fingers” or “I don’t like his eating with his fingers.” — Gil Ramirez

Go with the second version. Because eating is a gerund, an -ing verb that acts as a noun, it is the true object of the verb like. Thus, the preceding pronoun should be cast as a possessive, his.