Subscribe to The Chicago Manual of Style Online
Usage and Grammar
Q. One of your inquirers included the sentence “Most people only know the one reality they’ve lived.” (This was not the subject of the person’s inquiry, which was well answered.) Should it not be “Most people know only the one reality”? “Most people only know” would imply they know it, but do not appreciate it, do not embrace it, do not examine it, etc. “Most people know only the one reality” would imply that they know the one reality but not others, almost certainly what the writer intended.
A. Your phrasing is technically correct, but Chicago only mildly disapproves of misplacing only—especially in informal contexts like the Q&A—because that’s the way people talk, and the meaning is almost always clear regardless. (Please see CMOS 5.186.) Merriam-Webster says: “After 200 years of preachment the following observations may be made: the position of only in standard spoken English is not fixed, since ambiguity is avoided through sentence stress; in casual prose that keeps close to the rhythms of speech only is often placed where it would be in speech; and in edited and more formal prose only tends to be placed immediately before the word or words it modifies.”