Monday, December 04, 2006
Take the sign at the service exit to my building for example.
"This door is for exit only"
I went down today to take a picture of it, but someone had taken it down. Someone had penciled numbers above each of the words on the sign, which was printed on a plain white sheet of paper. If you rearranged the words, using the numbers as a guide:
"Only this door is for exit"
What's the difference you ask? I recalled a piece by grammar guru Dick Thien during my Chips Quinn training years ago to answer that question. From the so-called Thien Bible:
Among the many things that are natural in conversation among literate people but don’t pass muster in writing is the misplacement of "only."
In conversation, this would have been utterly natural and instantly understandable: “In the past, agents have only testified about their procedures and activities.”
But that sentence was in the public prints, where the voice can’t be heard and the requirements are stricter. "Only" needs to be snug up against what it modifies.
The writer didn’t mean the agents only testified – as opposed, for example, to chatting or singing or praying. "Only" had to do with what they testified about – procedures and activities – and the sentence should have said the agents “have testified only about their procedures and activities.”
So now I understand why the sign probably drove some copy editor so bonkers that he or she just had to edit it. Gotta keep those onlys smack dab next to what they modify. Only a journalist can appreciate that need to fix another person's copy. continue...