usage

tires or tyres

Retread #3: Only now…

I originally posted this somewhat quirky set of thoughts about the word “only” back in June of 2014.

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.

 

Remember The Ice Cream Truck from Hell? That serial story is almost ready. Part 1 will roll out on May 1st!

It’s really coming!

Images from Pixabay

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Only now…

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.

 

The Comma Bucket

Editing my writing over the years, I’ve had a mental image of a big bucket full of commas that I’ve deleted from the novels in my Herbert West Trilogy. Running along the rows of text, I’ve plucked out commas right and left and tossed them into the bucket.

I admit that my usage of commas is largely determined by the way a sentence sounds in my mind as I’m composing it — rather like creating music without bothering to learn musical notation. In fact, I see prose as a kind of word-music, and apply commas in spots where one might take a breath while reading aloud.

I just did some superficial (is there any other kind?) web searching on the topic of comma usage and found a list called “10 Completely Wrong Ways to Use” this punctuation mark. Number 4 is my personal bugbear, as it turns out — inserting a comma after the first component of a compound predicate.  “She hated going to the dentist, and cried the whole way there.” Yes! This is exactly the kind of thing I do, not because I want to break a rule of usage (chortling wickedly as I insert the comma), but because to me the comma here represents a tiny pause in which the reader may savour the fact that “she” hated going to the dentist, before going on to the consequence of that hatred, her tears. If I want to do this and remain on the right side of the rules, I must turn the sentence into a compound one by repeating the subject “she” in the part after the conjunction, like this: “She hated going to the dentist, and she cried the whole way there.”

Well. I am a cataloguer by profession and therefore used to complex rules involving tiny details of wording and punctuation, but even to me this seems quite byzantine. (You don’t know what a cataloguer is?  A kind of librarian.  “Cataloger” is another way to spell it. Look it up).

The point is that both the correct and incorrect sentences I quoted look OK to me. I’m almost certain that if I were reading an interesting book, eager to find out who did it, or whether they get back together in the end, or if she escapes, I wouldn’t notice such an error.

This brings up a blog post by a fellow writer (also Canadian) that mentions “Canadian punctuation.” It seems that if one is preparing a book for the American market, one must punctuate American style. Do Canadians use more commas? If I’m an example, I suppose the answer is “Yes.” But again — does it matter? In fiction at least, if your prose is such that readers actually notice the way you use commas, the commas are probably the least of your problems.

This calls to mind yet another fellow writer’s blog post, recommending that writing may be improved by deleting instances of the word “that.” For example: “Alma thought Herbert had been dead for fifteen years,” instead of “Alma thought that Herbert had been dead for fifteen years.” She’s right; the “that”  doesn’t really add anything and the sentence is smoother without it. The problem is that once you focus on a word or punctuation mark, it’s all you can see as you read on. Sentences become meaningless because your brain can’t focus on anything else. It’s like when you notice a clock ticking or a fly buzzing; suddenly that sound seems intolerable and overwhelming. When that word or that comma is all you can see, you need to disengage and reset your brain. Take a walk, do some pushups, chase the cat around or have a drink — whatever it takes — before getting back to the text.

Words arranged in order have meaning, sharpened by the squiggles and dots that are punctuation marks. A deleted sentence falls back into its elements of words and letters; the commas, periods and dashes are tossed carelessly into the virtual bucket sitting by the writer’s feet.

For the last word on usage, you may wish to consult William Strunk’s 1918 classic The Elements of Style.