One rather subtle problem I come across quite often in written English is the misplacement of the word “only.” In everyday conversation, we often say things like “I only go to the store on Saturdays” or “Esther can only play after she finishes her homework.”

We all understand what these statements mean, but in formal written English the “only” in each sentence would be in the wrong place. Ideally, “only” should directly precede whatever it is modifying.

In the two examples above, “only” modifies (further defines or restricts) the verb in the sentence. In the first example, I go to the store. But I only go. I don’t walk or fly or drive or skip. I go. In the second example, Esther can only play. She can’t read or eat or hold her breath or stick out her tongue after finishing her homework.

A more correct rendering of these examples, then, would be, “I go to the store only on Saturdays” and “Esther can play only after she finishes her homework.” This usage spells out when I go or when Esther can play.

In spoken English, we rarely need to be this precise. Sentence stress and the rhythms of speech help us understand what is meant. But in written English, ambiguity can creep if we are not careful. Sometimes, precision in usage can spell the difference between saying exactly what we mean and landing only somewhere in the general vicinity of our intended message.

So use “only” only just before the word or phrase you wish to restrict.

Roger Terry has been a professional editor for 25 years, has written five books (three fiction, two nonfiction) and numerous articles, essays, short stories, book reviews and newspaper columns. He is a sports fanatic and an unrepentant chocoholic.