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Placing the word "only" in 15 different places in the sentence results in over 20 different interpretations!
Only His Only Grammarian Can Only Say Only What Only He Only Means.Peter G. Neumann, SEN Editor (1976-1994)
ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes 9, 1, Jan 1986, p. 6.
Copyright Peter G. Neumann, 1986,1997 [with slight revision in the placement of an italicized only -- see Note 2]
In response to the apparently rampant rage of the misplaced only,and perhaps also inspired by some of William Safire's columns in The NewYork Times Sunday Magazine, I offer the following annotated examples.(Italics indicate spoken stress, and parentheses indicate the presence ofsomething that would be implicit even when spoken.) Please bear with me onthis one. You may have to devote a little patience to each case. However,a conclusion you should be able to reach with no trouble at all is that theextent of ambiguity in the written English is awesome, but that wecan hide some of it in speaking the same words -- through suitable placementof emphasis (and with the help of a tolerance or ambivalence on the part ofthe listener). May you learn to put the only ``only'' only in thecorrect place. Note that the other places that you might put theitalicized only in the previous sentence (e.g., before the first,second, third, fourth, or tenth words) also result in different meanings.
1. Only(,) I said he thought secret users may write secret data.
2. Only I said he thought secret users may write secret data.
3. I only said he thought secret users may write secret data.
4. I said only (that) he thought secret users may write secret data.
5. I said only he thought secret users may write secret data.
6. I said he only thought secret users may write secret data.
7. I said he thought only (that) secret users may write secret data.
8. I said he thought only secret users may write secret data.
9. I said he thought only secret users may write secret data.
10. I said he thought secret users only may write secret data.
11. I said he thought secret users only may write secret data.
12. I said he thought secret users may only write secret data.
13. I said he thought secret users may write only secret data.
14. I said he thought secret users may write secret data only.
15. I said he thought secret users may write secret data only.
Note that ignoring the added stress and implicit parentheticals (as onewould in written English), various of these cases would appearindistinguishable from one another, reflecting inherent ambiguity in thewritten language; these cases are 1 and 2; 4 and 5; 8 and 9; 10 and 11; 14and 15. If you are still with me, here are some suggestions to help youinterpret at least one possible meaning in each of the above cases. Evenwith stress added, some of these cases are still ambiguous. And I have completely ignored the ambiguity between Secret-level usersand users of secrets, assuming the former for simplicity.
1. But I didn't say what you said I said. What I really said was ...
2. No one else said so. Only I did.
3. I didn't really mean it. I just said it.
4. I didn't say anything else.
5. I don't think anyone else thought so!
6. But he wasn't really sure.
7. He thought only that, and did not think anything else.
8. But not Unclassified or Top-Secret users.
9. But not Secret daemon processes or administrators.
10. Ambiguous! Depending on whether there is an unspoken pause or not after only, we have one of two cases:
The writer must be a user, and a Secret user at that, to write Secret data; OR
The only thing secret users may do is write Secret data (and nothing else -- not even breathe).
11. They are permitted to write, but perhaps they are unable to.
12. But they may not read such data.
13. But they many not write Top-Secret or Unclassified data.
14. They may not write secret procedures.
15. Ambiguous! Several of the above interpretations are possible, depending on substresses, pauses, and facial expressions.
NOTE 1, inspired by an Op-Ed piece,
Proposition 22 Author Didn't Take Grammar 101:
Improperly placed `only' opens Defense of Marriage Initiative to court challenge,
by Leo Kanowitz in the San Francisco Chronicle, 31 March 2000,
which cites the wording of Proposition 22 in the April 1999 statewideprimary election:
``Only marriage between a man and a woman will be valid or recognizedin California.''
Literally interpreted, that means that anything else between a man and awoman will not be valid or recognized, for example, legal contracts,spoken agreements, children, and a myriad of other things.It says nothing at all about the other relationships it was intended tomake invalid and unrecognized, such as same-sex partners, unions withanimals, etc. Very sloppy. The framers of Prop 22 should have readmy above discourse. PGN
NOTE 2, 19 April 2000: Many thanks to Julie Sussman, P.P.A., for noting theerroneous placement of the italicized ``only'' in the penultimate sentenceof the first paragraph, which has now been fixed above.