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Quick Tip for Writing Clearly: Put “Only” In Its Right Place

This tip for writing clearly is particularly helpful to me because it is so simple. It focuses on only one word.

Tip for writing clearly: put

Only.

As power words go, “only” is a strong one. 

  • It’s specific. “Only” means the best, the single one, none of the same kind.
  • It’s versatile. “Only” can modify nouns, verbs, and connectors.
  • It’s short. O-N-L-Y four letters.

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.”

The “Only” Catch to Writing Clearly

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 …

  • Only I bake cookies at Christmas.
  • I only bake cookies at Christmas.
  • I bake the only cookies at Christmas. 
  • I bake cookies only at Christmas.

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.   

Tip for Writing Clearly: It’s Only Where You Place It

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.

Place it before a noun

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.

Place it before a verb

I only bake Christmas cookies. 

Meaning: I bake solely Christmas cookies – not other types of cookies.

Place it before a connector

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.

The Only Rule

Place it before the word you want to modify to make your meaning clear.

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