Because its position in a sentence is so critical, the word ‘only’ can be a foxy shape-shifter.
Take these four examples:
- Only Aunt Jane visits Pete on Tuesdays.
- Aunt Jane only visits Pete on Tuesdays.
- Aunt Jane visits only Pete on Tuesdays.
- Aunt Jane visits Pete only on Tuesdays.
In 1, Jane is the sole person who visits Pete on Tuesdays. No one else does. (It might be more eloquent to say, ‘Aunt Jane alone visits Pete . . .’)
In 2, Jane visits him, but does nothing more, such as make him tea or take him shopping. Alternatively it could mean that Jane visits Pete, but she doesn’t do anything else, such as dig her vegetable garden or read a slim volume of verse.
In 3, on Tuesdays, Pete is the sole person she visits. She visits no one else.
In 4, she visits on Tuesdays, and not on any other day of the week.
What this shows is that ‘only’ forms a very strong bond with the word (or compound) that follows it. Only Aunt Jane. Only visits. Only Pete. Only on Tuesdays. Keep this in mind. Remember, too, that words like ‘solely’ or ‘alone’ or ‘just’ can spare you the crushing boredom of using only ‘only’.
Sometimes, the sense is obvious regardless. When Dusty sings ‘I only want to be with you’, no one grumbles that it should be ‘I want only to be with you’, or, more ambiguously and enticingly, ‘I want to be with you alone’.
Not only . . . but also
When we use ‘not only’, we should also add ‘also’ (or ‘too’). And, as above, we need to ensure our words are in the correct order and that everything agrees.
As a rule, the same part of speech that follows ‘not only’ should also follow ‘also’. In other words, if you use a noun after ‘not only’, then you should also place a noun after ‘also’. This is known as parallelism. In the first three below, the parallel parts are adjectives, verbs and nouns respectively. The fourth, tiresomely, is not strictly parallel, proving that every rule deserves to be broken.
- She’s not only a brilliant scientist, but also a great windsurfer.
- We not only sell vacuum cleaners, [but] we also repair them.
- We sell not only vacuum cleaners, but also motor mowers.
- I’m not just a pretty face, but clever too.
In Nos 1 and 3, and maybe 4, the comma is optional.
In No. 2, we can omit ‘but’, because the same subject (‘we’) carries through the sentence.
In No. 4, ‘a pretty face’ (qualified noun) and ‘clever’ (adjective) are not parallel. But since they can both legitimately follow ‘I am’, they’re acceptable. Also, I’ve gone for broke and used ‘too’ in place of ‘also’.
I hope you are now clearer on how to use not only only, but also not only and also.