A reader of The Baltimore Sun helpfully offers to point out a lapse in syntax:
Your statement “…only bring in files..” should read “…bring in only files..” should it not? Rarely should the modifier “only” be placed before the verb. Consider the following classic sentence:I hit him in the eye yesterday. Placing the modifier “only” in any of eight different parts of the sentence results in eight different meanings!
The gentleman expresses an orthodoxy of usage, one that the late James J. Kilpatrick repeatedly returned to in his columns on language. (It is not, however, in the Associated Press Stylebook, which we may consider as either an intelligent omission or a fortunate oversight.)
But Jan Freeman, in her Boston Globe columns and more recently at her blog Throw Grammar From the Train, dismisses the concern about the placemore of only as a mere fetish. "My theory is that this nit persists because writers love to make up the horrible examples with which they buttress the rule," she writes. She doubts that instances of genuine ambiguity are to be found in the wild.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that only was freely placed in sentences by established authors for a long time, identifying the "rule" that it must immediately precede the word it modifies as an invention of Bishop Lowth in the eighteenth century.
As Ms. Freeman points out, we understand the meaning perfectly clearly when only appears elsewhere in a seentence. We say, "You only live once," not "You live only once." Al Dubin, who gave us "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," "Forty-Second Street," and "We're in the Money," wrote "I Only Have Eyes for You," not "I Have Eyes for Only You."
MWDEU, at the end of two and a half pages of close type on the subject, sums up: "The position of only in standard spoken English is not fixed; ambiguity is prevented by clarifying stress and intonation. In literary English from the 17th century to the present, the placement of only according to the idiom of speech has been freely used; it is still used, especially in prose that keeps close to the rhythms of speech. In current edited prose--especially that for which ample time has been provided for revision--only tends to be used in the orthodox position--immediately before (or sometimes after) the word or words it modifies."
And Garner's Modern American Usage hews to the orthodox position.
But the terndency in American English, journalism in particular, over more than a century is to prefer conversational tones, vocabulary, and rhythms over the stagey, stodgy, and formal. And in the case of my work, where the time provided for revision is never ample, I would prefer not to see my colleagues waste it by monkeying around with the placement of only in sentences in which the meaning is clearly understood.*
*They will anyhow, dammit. I know they're over there, unnecessarily changing over to more than, and insisting that said has to come at the end of sentences, allowing monstrosities like " 'Such editing is a senseless waste of human life,' John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun's night content production manager and longtime blogger on language, said."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun