Simon Kelner, the editor of The Independent from 1998 to 2008, was a stickler for the placing of “only”. He and I got on well, and often the only changes he would make to leading articles I drafted for him would be to move an only and delete a comma. (One of his other common complaints was that someone had got out the “comma jar” and sprinkled some over the copy.)
English is such a flexible language that it does not usually matter if an “only” finds itself detached from the word or phrase to which it applies: the meaning remains clear. But John Armitage drew my attention to a case last week where a misplaced “only” created an ambiguity. In an article about sexual harassment in private schools, we said that a debating prize “has been won by a fee-paying school on 41 occasions, 29 of which by schools that only admitted boys at the time of victory”.
I think most readers would have gained the intended meaning without a glitch, because they would be expecting the article to mention boys-only schools, but Simon Kelner, John Armitage and I might hesitate over the implication that the schools didn’t admit boys before their victory. Ideally, it should have been “schools that admitted only boys”.
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