Usage and Grammar
Q. I regularly come across sentences in which “only” strikes me as being misplaced. An example: “Fish were only collected from the western portion of the pond,” which I think should be rewritten “Fish were collected only from . . .” because the former placement of “only” means “merely” or implies that something other than collecting could have been possible, whereas it is clear from the context that “only” is used to mean “there and nowhere else.” Am I correct? Or only nuts?
A. You’re not nuts; that’s the standard usage, but it has long been considered pedantic to disallow the front-loading of “only” when it’s unlikely to cause confusion. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which discusses the issue at length, acknowledges that at times placement is critical to meaning, but encourages writers to play it by ear otherwise. CMOS 5.186 also discusses the use and misuse of this term.