Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
This tip for writing clearly is particularly helpful to me because it is so simple. It focuses on only one word.
As power words go, “only” is a strong one.
It’s a word we use naturally in conversation. So for content writers like you and me, “only” fits in well with guidelines to “write like you talk.”
But there’s a catch to using this powerful word: if you misplace “only,” you create confusion.
You can discover that catch for yourself as you listen to conversation around you and notice where “only” appears in chatter.
For example …
Each of those sentences has a different meaning.
If you place “only” incorrectly, you face the misplaced modifier dilemma– an awkward construction that confuses the reader and muddles the meaning of your sentence.
And good writers aim for clarity, not confusion.
Fortunately, the “only” problem is an easy fix.
We can go old school grammar lesson here and explain that “only” can be an adjective (which modifies a noun) an adverb (modifies a verb, adverb, or a noun), or a conjunction (which connects words or phrases.)
(Or learn more at Grammarly.)
Instead, let’s simplify.
First, make sure you know what you’re trying to do with “only.”
Ask this: “What do I want ‘only’ to modify – to tell my reader about – in this sentence?”
Then place “only” right before the word you want to modify.
Only I bake cookies at Christmas.
Meaning: I’m the single person that bakes cookies at Christmas.
I bake the only cookies at Christmas.
Meaning: I bake the sole available cookies at Christmas.
I only bake Christmas cookies.
Meaning: I bake solely Christmas cookies – not other types of cookies.
I bake cookies only at Christmas.
Meaning: I bake cookies just one time a year – at Christmastime, although I may bake cakes and pies during other times of the year.
Place it before the word you want to modify to make your meaning clear.
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