If we knew how to use ONLY

Use of only in grammar

If there’s one misplaced modifier that drives me nuts, I’d say it’s ONLY. With the National Grammar Day on March 4, I thought I’ll share the common mistakes people make while using this word and mind you! we use ONLY every time.

When ONLY is used incorrectly, it makes hard for the listener (or reader) to understand the real meaning of the sentence. Let’s consider the following sentence:

The team ONLY scored ten runs in the first three overs.

To many, this sentence is correct – almost prefect. I don’t blame them because the mistake is so subtle. However, with my grammar OCD, this sentence sounds so unpleasant.

Let me give you the rule to use ONLY before we get into identifying the problem with the sentence. The simple rule is to use ONLY as close as possible to the word it modifies. Now in the sentence above ONLY is used with scored, thus it modifies that word. The sentence then means that the team did not do anything else (run, hit, etc.) in the first three overs, but ONLY SCORED.

You know; however, what the writer wanted to say, right? The right message is that the team scored ONLY TEN runs in the first three overs – not 20 or 8 runs. So, the word ONLY should be used as close as possible to the word it modifies – in this case ten.

Take a look at the following examples and judge for yourself:

– ONLY Neil hit Charlie in the leg.
– Neil ONLY hit Charlie in the leg.
– Neil hit ONLY Charlie in the leg.
– Neil hit Charlie ONLY in the leg.

I’m sure you now know these four sentences mean different – or do you still need explanation?


The uniqueness of unique


“Very unique”, “most unique”, “completely unique” are some phrases I hear a lot these days. Many a time I thought only people who don’t have a good understanding of grammar use it, but how would you feel when you hear something like that on a reputed news channel? I’m talking about the great BBC – and I gaped!

So, how can something be completely unique? Does unique have its degrees? If something is unique, is it not one of its kind? Oxford Dictionary gives the definition of unique as ‘unlike anything else’. This means unique does not have degrees. As I say, ‘there is nothing that can be more, less, completely, sort of, particularly unique’. It is a standalone word just like dead. Imagine someone saying ‘Harry is completely dead’. Bizarre this is, isn’t it?

So, next time you hear someone saying very unique (or something similar), tell them it’s a misuse. You can tell them that ‘unique itself is unique’. It doesn’t need a modifier. And leave them to Google what you said, ‘unique is unique’. 🙂

Plurals in the new world

I’ve got some food for thought – can words like media and criteria be treated as singular nouns? The old school methodology treats these nouns as plural and gives them plural verbs. Thus, ‘The criteria are listed here’. For grammar nerds, this perhaps is the only correct way of using such nouns.

But, I’m not surprised when I see such nouns used with singular verbs. ‘The media reaches everyone fast’ is an example.

There is a gap between what’s technically correct and how the new world uses such words. And, the bridge between these two is ‘mass nouns’. Let’s find this out.

Technically (and traditionally),
Singular form of ‘criteria’ is ‘criterion’, ‘media’ is ‘medium’ and ‘data’ is ‘datum’.
So, as per the Subject–Verb agreement, singular nouns take singular verb and plural nouns take plural verb.
The data are incorrect.
The datum is not sufficient for research.
The medium for this project is face-to-face sessions.
The media have covered the full seminar.

In the new world, plural nouns have got a new definition, mass nouns. Mass nouns have got their name from the masses, people who think such nouns are singular and associate them with singular verbs.

For example,
The data is up to date.
The criteria is listed below.
The media is going through a change.

I remember a colleague who once said, “When I discuss media, I refer to all forms of media as one. When I discuss data, I mean complete statistics. That’s when I use singular verbs”. That’s what many think in the new world, I believe.

So, which one do I prefer? Well, I’m a grammar stickler, so I prefer the traditional way and by saying this, I’m going against the new linguistic tide. However, the fact remains that such nouns are treated more like mass nouns, and you will hear them take singular verbs. Is one correct and the other incorrect? I won’t say so; it’s the choice you make!

If ‘and’ or ‘but’ can be a sentence starter?

Many of us, all through our years of education, were taught how improper it is to start a sentence with either ‘and’ or ‘but’. The truth, however, is that there is no grammar rule that prohibits beginning a sentence with these two conjunctions. In fact, this is one of the most common myths surrounding English grammar.

Starting sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ has been a very old practice (dates back to the tenth century). I’m sure many grammar buffs will hate to use conjunctions to start a sentence because they feel conjunctions create an incomplete thought. But although I am a grammar buff myself, I still don’t mind trying grammar in its variety if it makes sense. (Don’t miss my last sentence that starts with ‘but’ ;).)

Conjunctions are words that join clauses, words, phrases or sentences. When we use ‘and’ or ‘but’ first in a sentence, the reader’s attention is grabbed by the first word and its transitional function. So there’s nothing stopping you from going this way only if you pay some attention.

Is your sentence functioning if the opening conjunction is removed? If yes, don’t use it.
Will your sentence work better if connected to the previous one (the reason why you start your sentence with a conjunction)? Is the idea conveyed in two sentences better through a compound sentence? If yes, combine them.

So you understand the point I’m trying to make here. If the starting conjunction doesn’t help get across the point you’re making, just bid it adieu.

After all, you don’t want to complicate your writing, do you?

Why treat cannot as corruption?

In one of the language seminars I attended recently, some grammar nerds (including me) started to talk about cannot, can not and can’t. The discussion ended soon after one confidently declared how can’t is the contraction for can not, and cannot is simply a corruption.  Well, for me this was only the start of a big discussion, and also a good topic for my next blog, I thought.

First thing first, every word has a meaning, a reason for its existence. So, why treat cannot as corruption? Cannot and can not are two different words (or forms) and have different meanings. Cannot means that there is no possibility of something happening. For example, I cannot reach home on time today (meaning under no circumstances can I reach home on time today, I’m sure). Thus, when we use cannot, there is no possibility of ‘can’. However, can not means that something can happen if you want it to happen. Look at this example, Because Chris doesn’t enjoy drinks, he can choose not to attend the party.  So, this sentence means that Chris can not attend the party, but he can also attend it (if he wants). He’s making a choice to not attend it. I hope I make sense here.

Look at this now.
I can not write this post (but I am writing because I want to). I cannot know who will read this post and how others will feel after reading this post (because this is beyond my control). I think I’ve done a decent job with this example and made the difference clearer. 🙂

What is the rule of thumb then?
You use two words when you think there is a possibility (and you can get rid of the second word – not – if you want to). You use one word when you know there is no possibility no matter how hard you try or desire.

Other way of looking at this theory is that you use two words when you want to emphasise the ‘not’ part. For example, I want a holiday now, but I probably can not do it this year.

So, cannot and can not are not interchangeable. And can not is not a new word. You can find references to can not in Shakespeare’s works like the famous Hamlet.

So, read your sentence next time and ensure you use the correct form!

Sentences through diagrams

Yes! Explaining sentences through diagrams is called diagramming sentences. Take a look.

The mysterious Ain’t

Before we explore the mystery behind this word, let’s talk about some other words from the same category. I’m sure you know them better than you know ain’t! Aren’t and isn’t – you know they mean are not and is not.

You also know how to use them. For example, He’s coming to the party, isn’t he? You are having dinner with Karen, aren’t you? But what if we replace pronouns in these sentences with ‘I’? Let’s try, I am coming to the party, ———– I? I am having dinner with Karen, ———– I? What do you put in the blanks here? Your instinct will rephrase the sentences to say ‘am I not’? So, I’m coming to the party, am I not?


That means each verb ‘to be’ has a negative contraction, such as you are – you aren’t, he/she is – he/she isn’t. But what about I am? Well! If we go by the same logic,
are + not = aren’t
is + not = isn’t
am + not = amn’t

I seemed to have raised a few eyebrows here. Even if you don’t approve of (or have never heard) amn’t, the word exists and is very common is some parts of the world, especially Ireland and Scotland. However, why this word is not so common elsewhere is because it evolved quickly to change from amn’t to ain’t. In English, two nasal consonants such as ‘m’ and ‘n’ don’t marry up. Thus, the word evolved. But I’m surprised, the new word is not used too. Why? Because we think it’s incorrect?

You know the word exists and there is no rule that tells you not to use the word. But there is indeed one rule that tells you ain’t should be used with I only. Thus, you ain’t and she ain’t are incorrect. As much as she isn’t is to she is not, I ain’t is to I am not.
Let’s start using this word and give it back its rightful position in English language.

Correct your spellings

Hmm… So how difficult is it sometimes to correct a simple spelling mistake?
school spelling

Irregular verbs in danger of extinction

Today, many English verbs form their past tense by adding ‘ed’ at the end. For example, walked, expressed, turned, etc. It’s the same ending – the ‘ed’ form – that defines both the past tense and the past participle.

abode, abideHowever, in earlier times, the language exhibited more variety in how the past tense and the past participle of a verb were formed. For example, sing – sang – sung, write – wrote – written, etc. Many such verbs that are used even today are called irregular verbs, i.e., verbs that don’t form their past tense or past participle by simply adding ‘ed’ at the end.

The language also calls such verbs ‘strong’ verbs. Why? Because there is an art, a trick, involved when you form past tense of such verbs (not simply adding ‘ed’ as for regular/weak verbs). This art involves many ways, but the most common is to change the vowel in the present tense of the verb. For example, give becomes gave and stick becomes stuck. Another reason why they’re called strong is because such verbs are capable of forming other forms by using their own resources and not calling an ending – ‘ed’ – to their help.

The hard fact; however, is no matter how much we appreciate strong (irregular) verbs, they are soon vanishing from the vocabulary. Only as less as 70 irregular verbs (while the list once had numerous entries) survive today and are in the change process. Many modern dictionaries have changed woke (the past form of wake) to waked. In fact, how many of us know the past tense of help was holp?

Grammar researchers say this change can be compared to evolution because it follows the same theory—things less used tend to change for betterment. However, I feel this change should be restricted to those irregular verbs that people use today, not for old-fashioned verbs that people no longer use. For example, slay. This old-fashioned verb definitely deserves the old-fashioned past tense, slew.

Whatever be the case, I’m definitely not happy seeing irregular verbs die. Are you?

Don’t utilize utilize, instead use use

Some words do smart jobs, and ‘utilize’ is one such word. Why I call it smart? Search the Internet for cover letter and resume samples, and you will find large percentage of people using ‘utilize’ to sound super intelligent to their interviewer. However, if you are a grammar nerd like me, you will notice this ploy. Moreover, if the usage is incorrect, all the impression is gone!

Smart words need smart use, but only when you know the difference between the word and its considered-simple substitute. In this case, the smart word is ‘utilize’ and its considered-simple substitute is ‘use’. 

I am sure ‘use’ being such a common term, we all know how and where it is best used. The problem occurs when we use ‘utilize’. The two words may appear very close in meaning, but are definitely not inter-changeable. 

Oxford English Dictionary (http://oxforddictionaries.com/) states the difference between these two words as follows:
‘Use’ means to take, hold or deploy (something) as a means of accomplishing or achieving something; while ‘utilize’ means to make practical and effective use of something.

So, technically you will find the two words are different. While the definition for ‘use’ is completely direct, ‘utilize’ means to bring something to use for a different purpose other than its intended purpose. Thus, when you want to make an alternative use of something, ‘utilize’ is the correct word. Using it merely as a replacement for ‘use’ to add aesthetic value to your text is incorrect.

Here are some examples:

  • Paul can ‘use’ the conference room today from 3 PM to 4 PM.
  • Paul can ‘utilize’ the conference room for his holiday party today.
  • Simon ‘uses’ the dining table for meals, but ‘utilizes’ it more as his work space.

In the third sentence, ‘use’ is appropriate in the first part because eating is the primary purpose of the dining table. However, ‘utilize’ is the appropriate word to use in the second part because that is not the primary purpose of the dining table. This is perhaps one of the simplest examples to learn the difference between ‘use’ and ‘utilize’.

So, choosing what to use of the two words should not be difficult now. Identify how the subject is mostly employed, and if you are referring to the same purpose, use ‘use’; otherwise, use ‘utilize’. Be smart and use ‘utilize’ smartly. If the receiving end is smart too, your effort will be appreciated and your writing will genuinely be loftier.

Need little more help? Look for all citations of use without single quotes in this blog, and it should be clear why I haven’t used ‘utilize’ in any of these citations. Simple! If you’re still confused, you’re safe to use ‘use’ at all times and avoid any misuse!

And now who can crack the title of this blog for me?