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LawProse Lesson # 129: Placement of only.

The word only is probably misplaced more often than any other modifier in legal and nonlegal writing. Only emphasizes the word or phrase that comes immediately after it. So the more words separating only from its correct position, the more awkward and ambiguous the sentence. When it comes too early in the sentence, it actually plays down what it should emphasize. Here are some examples:

    Not this: The Bennett case involved a lawsuit that was only permissible after the repeal of a statute.
    But this: The Bennett case involved a lawsuit that was permissible only after the repeal of a statute.
    Not this: Stewart is only entitled to a refund for overpayment in the five tax years if the order entered was invalid.
    But this: Stewart is entitled to a refund for overpayment in the five tax years only if the order entered was invalid.
    Not this: In the brief, Collins argued that a statement is only admissible under the federal evidence rules if it was made within the scope of an agency or employment relationship.
    But this: In the brief, Collins argued that a statement is admissible under the federal evidence rules only if it was made within the scope of an agency or employment relationship.
    Not this: The Commission will only depart from this longstanding policy of nondisclosure when an institution has misrepresented the accrediting documents.
    But this: The Commission will depart from this longstanding policy of nondisclosure only when an institution has misrepresented the accrediting documents.

As you can see, the strong tendency in American English is to place only right before the verb regardless of what it is modifying. But as the content grows between only and the word or phrase it modifies, so grows the ambiguity.

One caveat: the idiomatic use of only before the verb in spoken English works only because the speaker’s inflection and tone usually make the meaning clear. But in written English—especially in legal writing, where precision is crucial to meaning—take care to place only in only its fastidiously correct position.

Sources:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 635 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 592-93 (3d ed. 2009).
The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 10.42, at 209 (3d ed. 2013).

Thanks to David Gurnick and Todd C. Zubler for suggesting this topic.

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.

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