I hit a man in the eye. Not really. I just used the sentence as a way of demonstrating how adverbs such as “only” get to move around in sentences and thus provide us with a host of interpretations.
In my class at the United World College a few years back, I wrote down that sentence and asked students to place the word “only” in different positions.
Only I hit him in the eye. (Darn, I wish my Railroad Avenue buddies had been able to join in.)
I only hit him in the eye. (The injury could have been much worse. Honest.)
I hit only him in the eye. (His brother was asking for it too, but I decided one lawsuit is enough).
I hit him only in the eye. (No other place.)
I hit him in only the eye. (See above.)
I hit him in the only eye. (This guy’s a Cyclops.)
I hit him in the eye only. (Nowhere else.)
Lucille Van Horn, a reader of this column, showed me a newspaper clipping whose headline clearly had a misplaced “only.” The head read something like, “The spectator only wanted to help.”
The Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, describes “only” as “perhaps the most frequently misplaced of all English words.” Garner says its best placement is precisely before the words intended to be limited: “The more words separating ‘only’ from its correct position, the more awkward the sentence.”
A recent newspaper article mentioned that the “suspect only provided his driver’s license after police demanded it.” This, I am sure, is the way most people talk. We all realize that the suspect wasn’t being overly cooperative. Ideally, the “only” should go immediately after “license.” Otherwise, we imply the suspect produced the license and not much else.
Notice how often we place “only” early in the sentence, giving it not quite the intended meaning, as in, “She only dates fraternity members” or “The New Mexico Space Port will only benefit wealthy people like Victoria Principal.”
A recent column, in which I broached “only,” mentioned “used to” as well. Deliberately, in several places, I used “used to” in place of “use to” and vice-versa. Meanwhile, before it went to press, the managing editor caught these deliberate errors, fixed them and later needed to break them again.
The use of “He use to be my friend,” I believe, is strictly a question of phonics, what one hears. Because in speech “to” tends to drown out the “d” in “used,” people don’t hear it and leave it out. The omission is common and usually undetected in speech, but in writing, the error is glaring.
I got so wrapped up in last week’s column, attempting to make the “use to” errors that I lost track. Early in the column, I referred to lions that “don’t share, or at least they didn’t used to.” Should it have been “didn’t use to?” I believed “didn’t use to” was correct and accordingly used the other form — to have something to write about this week. Still, “didn’t use to” doesn’t sound right.
“I used to” is used by people who drink “ice tea” instead of “iced tea.”
Sometimes the wretched way of spelling words haunts people. A colleague, the late Bill Knell, taught composition courses at Highlands for years. The way he told the story, a woman in his class asked Knell if she could show him her shimmy. Now a shimmy is usually what a car does when not aligned properly or a tire isn’t balanced.
Or it’s a funny, shaky move performed by I.C. cheerleaders of old. Presumably a human’s shimmy would be a kind of stutter step, a jiggle here, a wiggle there.
Surely, Knell was confused over the student’s offer to show her shimmy, and asked her exactly what she had in mind. Did the coed intend to show the shimmy in full view of her classmates?
When Knell asked her intentions, she apparently answered something like this: “I have my shimmy ready. Remember last week you asked us to come up with a shimmy for organizing our term papers?”
“Please spell the word you’re using,” he must’ve asked.
She did: “S-c-h-e-m-e, and that spells ‘shimmy.’”
Many of us have synonymania, the compulsion never to call a spade a spade. Therefore, we don’t ever say, “The ball went through the goalposts,” but “The pigskin split the uprights.” Nor do we call it a football field but a gridiron.
And in election coverage, it gets repetitious to keep saying someone received x-number of votes. That’s why some people use “garner,” as in gleaning, receiving or collecting.
Yet in a recent college publication, the magazine cover mentions that a football coach “garnished” plenty of support. And the table of contents refers to someone else who “garnished placement” in an institute.
Now only recently has it became acceptable to refer to the process of withholding a portion of a deadbeat’s paycheck — garnisheeing — as “garnishing.” But garnishing also means the act of placing a tomato wedge and cucumber on a salad or other dish.
But garnering and garnishing are different bags altogether. Unless, perhaps the recipients of these awards devised some kind of shimmy and only wanted to spruce them up by adorning them with a sprig of parsley, the way we use to.