Both and Only Are Four-Letter Words

Not those kind of four-letter words. But in the same way you might ask yourself whether those four-letter words are necessary in your prose, you will want to check your use of these words: both and only.

Wait, you’re thinking, isn’t both the kind of word you need to make your writing clear? It can be. But there are also times it can create just enough confusion to make a reader stumble. And that’s something you want to avoid.

Consider this sentence:

  • The administration notified both teachers and parents of the pending budget dilemma.

Does both clarify or raise questions? In this instance, a plural noun immediately follows both—leaving the reader open to the possibility, even momentarily, that both modifies only teachers. It may even give the impression that the school has only two teachers.

Here both raises questions that distract the reader from the writer’s purpose. Is anything lost when both is removed? No, removing it actually tightens the sentence and offers just the clarity, precision, and economy of words that all writers strive for.

Here’s a simple rule about this: if both doesn’t add anything to the sentence and comes before a pair of plural nouns, you can safely remove it.

The challenge with only is placement. Only modifies the word or phrase immediately following it. A sentence’s meaning will change significantly depending on where you place that little word, as this sentence illustrates:

  • Only Madeleine eats chocolate when she’s under stress. (Madeleine, no one else, eats chocolate under stress.)
  • Madeleine eats only chocolate when she’s under stress. (Madeleine doesn’t eat beef jerky or chips, just chocolate, when she’s stressed-out.)
  • Madeleine eats chocolate only when she’s under stress. (Only modifies the phrase “when she’s under stress.” Madeleine doesn’t eat chocolate when things are going well.)
  • Madeleine eats chocolate when she’s under stress only. (Moving only to the end of the sentence does not change its meaning from the previous sentence.)

It’s a good practice to always be as clear as possible in your speaking and writing, and remembering to place only immediately before the word it clarifies is one simple way to do that. Now if we can all only remember that!

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