Grammar · writing tips

Writing Tips: Where to Put Only and Just in Your Sentence

By Jacqueline Schaalje

only
Bikes Only

When writing and speaking you want to be as clear as possible. In writing this is even more important, as the people you write to can’t see your face and the gestures you make with your hands (or feet!).

So the following tips are especially important for when you’re writing, although you can use them also when you speak.

Consider the following sentence(s):

1 I told the hairdresser to only cut my hair a little bit.

2 I told the hairdresser to cut my hair only a little bit.

3 I told the hairdresser only to cut my hair a little bit.

4 I told only the hairdresser to cut my hair a little bit.

So what do you think? Do these sentences mean the same?

Hm, well, I’m not sure.

I don’t think so.

Where Should You Put Only?

In English, when you want to say about something that it is the only thing (and nothing else), it’s best when you put “only” before the thing that is meant.

When you put “only” somewhere else in the sentence, we can still understand that there is something that is the only thing in the sentence, but we’ll need to guess what is is.

This problem doesn’t only apply to “only,” so in fact we can make this rule:

Put Just and Only In Front (of What They Modify) 

If you use words like just and only, put them before the word(s) that you want to mean just and only. (There are some other words that we won’t talk about now, such as still and already, that use the same rule.)

So now let’s go over the four sentences with “only” again and see what each of them means.

1 I told the hairdresser to only cut my hair a little bit.

“Only” is before “cut my hair,” so this probably means that I would like the hairdresser to cut my hair, and not cut something else, let’s say my t-shirt.

That is a strange sentence, don’t you think? The person who said this probably means that they want only a little bit off their hair. So they ought to have said: I told the hairdresser to cut my hair only a little bit.

2 This sentence: “I told the hairdresser to cut my hair only a little bit” is clear and unambiguous. The person who says this wants a little bit cut off their hair, and not a big piece.

3 I told the hairdresser only to cut my hair a little bit.

This sentence isn’t clear, because we don’t know what the only refers to. Does the person want to say she wants only a little bit cut off her hair? Or does she mean that this is the only thing she told her hairdresser?

To make the sentence unambiguous, the following options are possible:

A I told the hairdresser to cut my hair only a little bit. This is the example we saw in 2.

Or B: The only thing I told my hairdresser was to cut my hair a little bit.

In B, you’re expressing that this is the only thing she told her hairdresser (and she didn’t say any other thing).

4 I told only the hairdresser to cut my hair a little bit.

This sentence is clear and unambiguous. It means that the this person told only the hairdresser about what she wanted done to her hair, and not other people. So we can be sure she didn’t tell the milkman.

Okay, I hope you’re beginning to understand this a little bit.

But if not, here is another example. Now we’ll talk about some sentences with “just.”

1 They were just married when they fell in love.

2 They were married when they just fell in love.

3 They were married just when they fell in love.

4 They were married when they fell just in love.

Let’s see… Do you think these sentences mean the same?

Hmm, no…

Again, we can understand that “just” applies to the thing that comes right after it.

However, there is an additional problem with just, which is that it can mean different things:

A not long ago, just a minute ago, recently.

B only.

C simply.

So you see, lots of room for interpretation. But it sure helps when we put “just” in the right place in the sentence.

love

1 They were just married when they fell in love.

Just married, this means the two people were married not long ago.

2 They were married when they just fell in love.

They just fell in love. They couldn’t help it, love was so strong that they simply fell in love. Even though they were married. Oops! Can happen to the best of us.

3 They were married just when they fell in love.

Here “just” comes before “when,” so we know that the meaning of just must be something connected to time, so just probably means not long ago. Therefore this sentence must mean that they were married at the same time that they fell in love. It sounds a bit strange, but theoretically it should be possible: The two people fell in love (perhaps not with each other), but then they were married (to other people). We’d surely need more information here to understand what the heck is going on.

4 They were married when they fell just in love.

Just in love, so here “just” could mean they only fell in love, that is to say this is the only thing they did. It could be much more than fall in love, or it could be much worse. They could also fall from a cliff or fall from their chairs, but instead they fell only in love.

Or “just” could mean they simply fell in love. They couldn’t help it, this is what happened. If you choose this interpretation, there is no difference with the meaning in 3.

As you can see, this sentence has two different interpretations, because the position of “just” wasn’t chosen well, but also because just has different meanings anyway.

Time for you to practice a little bit!

Quiz

Do this quiz online here. 

Choose what the likely meaning is of the following sentences.

1 He thought it would be fun to tell just one very bad joke before the dinner.

2 I just want my children to grow up healthy.

3I saw Ms Dickens just when she crossed the street carrying her big shopping bag.

4 Maybe it was only my imagination, but I saw something moving behind the window.

5 She has only one good friend, but she talks to lots of people.

6 What can you expect: he’s just a kid.

7 I need only to put these clothes away and then I’m ready to go out.

8 Why do you want to go out only on a Saturday?

9 I’m just too busy during the week.

Want to do more quizzes that improve your writing?

Here are some random quizzes that you’ll probably enjoy:
Verbs that Must Have an Object

Reason and Result: So and Because

Using Whose to Combine Sentences

Most Certainly and Almost Certainly Etc.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Where to Put Only and Just in Your Sentence

  1. Additionally, none of the offered answers to question 8 strikes me as correct. The best way I can think of to express what it does mean to me is “Why do you never want to go out on any other day of the week?”

    Like

  2. “‘Only’ is before ‘cut my hair,’ so this probably means that I would like the hairdresser to cut my hair, and not cut something else, let’s say my t-shirt.”

    This seems wrong to me. That interpretation would be “cut only my hair” in my mind. On the other hand, “only cut my hair” implies to me “don’t do anything else with it, like brush it, dye it, wash it or blow-dry it”.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s