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!

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?