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!

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.

#7 Confusing modifiers

Best way to use modifiers is to place them near the word/s they modify.
Thus, ‘Only I love Harry’ is different from ‘I love only Harry’.


whom-ah…him-ah; he-hoo…who-hoo: the ‘whom’ chant

I read the title and think of some tribal song. But trust me, there’s nothing of that sort happening here. Read the title again and it’ll disclose the essence who vs whom (if you’re a grammar lover, you may have got the rule too :)).

who vs whom

Whom is what many call the problem word because they are unsure about its usage. In fact, many who use it contemplate their sentences with “Did I use whom correctly”.

One stylebook really grasped my attention some years back where it talked about some chant on who vs whom that goes ‘whom-ah…him-ah; he-hoo…who-hoo’. Interesting and goes well too!

The grammar rule that this chant gives is to use whom when you mean him and who when you mean he. One other difference between who and whom is who refers to the subject and whom to the direct object. Let’s study some examples now.

Who is sitting in the class? [Ans.: He is sitting.]
Whom did you see in the evening? [Ans. I saw him.]

Looking at the possible answers and the rule, you will understand why who is correct in the first sentence and whom in the second. In the first sentence, he is the subject; while in the second sentence, him is the direct object. And you have potentially guessed the subject in the second sentence; it’s you.

But I know many language experts think using whom at times sounds uptight. They prefer using who in a sentence like ‘Whom are you going out with?’ (even when they know it’s whom).

I’m making a point here that whom definitely exists and grammar lovers appreciate the correct use of who and whom.

How I learnt the difference was to leave a blank in the question and fill it up with either whom or who after answering the question with he or him. It works, wanna try?

_____ made the cake?
_____ did she hire to mow the lawn?
You referred _____ in the meeting?
_____ disclosed the truth to the owner?

Answers: who, whom, whom, who.

But as much as I love this grammar rule and use it, I have a strong feeling whom will disappear from our dictionaries soon because many feel its usage sounds odd sometimes even when being technically correct. What do you feel?

For me every grammar rule is worth knowing. You never know … you may impress someone with your superb knowledge of some very basic grammar. After all, little things do make a difference.

The art of ‘Linking’

SEO - link building

The bond between Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and link building dates back to late 90s. Links are, indeed, connectors between different web pages on the Web.

Writing for the Web is more than just ‘content’. You can write the most-appealing content and design user-friendly web pages; however, if your content lacks links, you are just no one in the eyes of search engines.

A simple strategy that works on the Web is, more the number of links in your content, better the ranking for your web page. But, what is the most-appropriate link? What should be your linking strategy? Are these some questions to which you seek answers?
Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer to these. Every netizen has a different definition and strategy for link building. But there are still some common factors that everyone keeps in mind.

If you ask me, I definitely keep the following factors in mind when I search for good links on the Web.

Link building

The ‘trust factor’ comes into play during link building. Authentic websites rank high in Google and getting a link from any trusted website does half the work! But checking the authenticity of a website (or a web page) is another task. Common sense says that how good or bad a website is can be easily calculated by the links to that website. Another practice is to look for the Google page rank of a website (http://www.prchecker.info/) and link to the one with a high page rank.

I’m sure you would not want to link to a beauty website if your website talks about Finance (unless you’re financing beauty businesses :)). Link to a website that very closely talks about the same subject as that of your website.

Anchor text
I would choose a link that includes keywords that closely match my subject rather than a link that merely says, ‘click here’. Another key point in link building is that the hyperlinked text should be informative in itself. And trust me, this helps in increasing the page rank as well!

The content is the key
The crux of any good website is its content. Unless the content on your website is relevant, generating links will be very difficult. In addition to your ‘link hunting’, other netizens should also be compelled to link to your website. And this happens only when the content on your website is relevant and possesses high quality.

Well, these tips should be good to start. But, don’t forget nothing is stable in the online world with competition increasing every day. Ensure you revise your link-building strategy and don’t be scared of experimenting.

Happy link building!

‘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.