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?


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!

‘That’ or ‘Which’ is worth knowing!

‘That’ and ‘Which’ are one of the easiest words in grammar, yet I meet so many people who are unclear when to use ‘that’ and ‘which’.

Here are two versions of one sentence, one with ‘that’ and the other with ‘which’.

Which of the two sentences, do you think, is correct?

  • The book, which recently made headlines because of its content, has sold 100 000 copies.
  • The book that recently made headlines because of its content has sold 100 000 copies.

I’ll first give you the answer to the question above, rather than making you wait till the end of the article. The sentence with ‘that’ is correct. Also note the parenthetical commas in the first sentence.

Now the rule of thumb!

That or WhichUse ‘that’ to introduce a restrictive clause and ‘which’ to introduce a non-restrictive (parenthetical) clause. Have restricted and non-restricted created more confusion now? Well, it did when I learnt it the first time. But this is one widely used terminology to differentiate ‘that’ from ‘which’.

Here’s an easy explanation. Use ‘which’ when your purpose is just to add extra information to the sentence. That is, the meaning of the sentence is clear even without adding the extra information. Use ‘that’ when the meaning of the sentence is unclear without the clause. That is, if the clause is removed, the meaning of the sentence will change.

In the example above, the first sentence without the clause reads, ”The book has sold 100 000 copies”. This is unclear. Which book? What was the feature because of which it sold so much? Thus, you definitely need the clause to complete the meaning of the sentence. Hence, the second sentence is correct: The book that recently made headlines because of its content has sold 100 000 copies.

Let’s try with one more example now.

  • Lecture room 5, which is newly built, is in building 51.
  • Lecture room 5 that is newly built is in building 51.

Now in this case, the sentence with ‘which’ is correct. The ”newly built” clause is adding extra information to the sentence and if removed, does not alter the meaning of the sentence—Lecture room 5 is in building 51.

Another difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’ is that ‘which’ is always supported by parenthetical commas.

Now that you know the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’, you would ask, ”Is this difference worth bothering”?

While most people would use ‘which’ and ‘that’ interchangeably and it does not result in undue confusion, it is worth knowing the difference to make your writing as clear as possible (especially in technical and business writing).

Just a reminder towards the end; do not use ‘that’ or ‘which’ to refer to people. Use ‘who’ instead.

  • Incorrect: The boy that played football is injured.
  • Correct: The boy who played football is injured.