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Q: Which “only” is correct in the sentence “Only I only hit only him only in the eye only yesterday only.”

A: It depends.

On her blog, A Capital Idea, Nicole Stockdale, a copy editor at The Dallas Morning News, wrote about the major changes in meaning that a minor change in word placement can cause. She was citing a presentation the director of copy desks for The New York Times, Merrill Perlman, made.

Merill had the perfect example about how the placement of “only” can change the meaning of a sentence. Start with “I hit him in the eye yesterday.” Add the world only in different places and watch how the emphasis changes:

Only I hit him in the eye yesterday. (No one else hit him.)
I only hit him in the eye yesterday. (I also considered slapping and poking.)
I hit only him in the eye yesterday. (I could have hit plenty of others.)
I hit him only in the eye yesterday. (Not in the nose or the mouth.)
I hit him in the eye only yesterday. (Ah, what a day that was.)
I hit him in the eye yesterday only. (Had it been two days in a row, then you could be mad.)

While easy to notice in other people’s writing, word-placement mistakes are difficult to catch when reviewing something you wrote. So often we read our own writing as we meant it, not as it actually appears. Again, having the computer read back your material to you is a great way of catching these kind of mistakes.

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