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?


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?

Content pollution

Imagine yourself in a roadside café for a coffee interview with your potential boss. You hear music playing, cars honking and passer-by talking. In the midst of all noise, you miss the important message from your potential employer. How do you feel? Bugged, right? That’s how users feel when they don’t get the important message on your website because it’s hidden by redundant details and excessive word count.

This is what I call content pollution. Never heard of this before? You may have heard ‘information pollution’ then. Information pollution is the contamination of information supply with irrelevant, redundant, unsolicited and low-value information . However, I call it content pollution to be specific with web content.

Simple rule for web writing thus says, ‘Less is more’. If there’s some information users don’t need, don’t waste their time by writing it on your web page. Your best bet is to say less, but communicate more.

This is where web writing differs from print writing. How many web authors understand this difference though? Some? Or if not, how many apply the rule? I come across so many web pages everyday that give me an impression, “This is not for you! It’s for some high-school English teacher”.

So, how do you stick to the real essence of your information without much blah blah?

Style guide: To have a consistent tone delivered across your web writing, you should follow a style guide at all times.
Tentativeness: What you think adds clarity to the writing can add ambiguity. ‘Kind of’, ‘probably’, ‘sort of’ are such words. You don’t need them, right?
Redundancy: I’ve seen many web authors using ‘in this article’ in their writing. When you read such thing, are you not on that article already? ‘In my opinion’ is another one. If you’re the author, doesn’t it imply to the reader that IT IS your opinion? Are such phrases needed at all? Perhaps no! Think of all such redundant words/phrases and get rid of them. By doing this, you not only come to the important message quickly, but also reduce the word count of your writing. Remember, less scrolling leads to better scanning. [Redundant terms/phrases are a big list and I’m planning to dedicate a post on these :).]
Language: Don’t use too many pronouns. This improves content clarity and its search optimisation.
Use direct language and stay away from technical terms and jargons. Jargons and industry-specific languages cloud the important message adding ambiguity.

I definitely want to add more here because there’s plenty. But let me reserve some for my next post on ‘content pollution’. Till then, follow these to strengthen your writing and build reader confidence.