In the fourth of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories serialized under the title “Herbert West, Reanimator,” West tells the narrator that a traveler collapsed and died while asking for directions at his door — presenting him with an opportunity for a really fresh specimen for one of his reanimation experiments. When the fellow comes back to life, he reveals to the narrator that West murdered him. But before that, the first words he utters as life returns to him are “Only now.” Unfortunately, with the return of full consciousness, the subject remembers his murder and never completes that intriguing sentence. Only now… what? Since H.P.L. was an atheist, it was probably not a secret of the afterlife. But “only” is an interesting word.
1. Only I can help you now.
2. I only can help you now.
3. I can only help you now.
4. I can help only you now.
5. I can help you only now.
Five sentences with quite different meanings. The wording is identical except for placement of one word — only. A slippery little word, sometimes redundant, occasionally powerful, as in #1 above. (Sentence #2, in my opinion, is problematic, but I included it for the sake of completeness). A warning before you read any more — I am no grammarian. Like a musician who doesn’t read music, I write by ear.
“Only” is an adverb, derived from Old English “anlic,” meaning “one-like.” But it’s also used as an adjective (“This is my only chance”) and a conjunction (replacing “but,” as in “I wanted to do it right, only I failed”). It can even be a noun, as in “You are my one and only.”
People are often careless in their use of “only,” especially in conversation, tossing it into sentences without much concern as to where it lands. “I’ll only be a minute,” one says, when “I’ll be only a minute” is more precise. There is a tendency to put “only” near the beginning of a sentence, often immediately before the verb. (Makes sense when it’s an adverb). The verb is the action word in a sentence, and “only,” intended here to convey brevity or insignificance, is applied to the action word rather than to “minute,” the word that really conveys brevity.
This use of “only” is as a “softener,” a word that tones down the impact of a sentence, turning it from a demand to a request. In such a situation, you may wish to use “just” rather than “only.” “Just” is a kind of throwaway word, and often a sentence is improved by throwing it out.
If you want a rule, it might be this: put “only” right before the word it applies to. Move it around until the sentence conveys your intended meaning.
“Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Indeed she does.
“God only knows.” He isn’t talking, but someone else might, unless only God knows, in which case prayer is your only option.