The Telegraph
Wednesday , January 16 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
CIMA Gallary


I’ll shorten the sentence, even though, supposedly, it was delivered by a judge. But it was one he spoke, not pronounced, and I am concerned only with grammar, not crime — except against the word only.

The case concerned an Islamist bookseller. What the judge was reported as saying was that “the prosecution could use only the evidence that the books had been bought by extremists to show that such people would see them as encouragement to terrorism, not that they had been thus encouraged”.

So that’s what he said, is it? Only that evidence? No other evidence? Suppose the prosecution had wheeled in a dozen convicted terrorists to swear that they personally had indeed been encouraged by the books concerned. Would the judge have ruled that irrelevant? Of course not. What I guess he actually said was not “could use only the evidence...” but maybe (1) “use the evidence only to show...” or, (2) still likelier, “only use the evidence...” Poor little only has been cruelly misplaced.

Second way

In pedants’ eyes, it very often is so. They maintain that only must always apply to the very word or phrase that immediately follows it; so place it accordingly. According to this ‘rule’, I only bought an apple means that you merely bought the apple, you didn’t peel it or eat it or resell it. If what you want to say is that all you bought was an apple, not an orange or some grapes or a gold bracelet, then — declare the pedants — you must say, I bought only an apple.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with that second way of saying what you want to say. But it is distinctly formal and, in most circumstances, sounds unnatural. Most of us, most often, would simply say, I only bought an apple. And why not? It could very seldom cause confusion.

If you use the phrase we only meet at the cafe, you most probably mean that the cafe is the only place the two of you meet, as distinct from your office or his flat. Pretty certainly you don’t mean that once at the cafe all you do there is meet, before sitting down to gossip or haggle or smother each other in kisses.

To go a step further, by we only meet at the cafe on Saturdays you probably mean (a) that Saturday is the only day of the week that the two of you meet there; you’re using meet at the cafe as if it were hyphenated into a single word. Or, less probably, but possibly, that (b) on Saturdays the cafe is your only meeting-place, wherever else you may meet on other days. But almost certainly you don’t mean, as the pedants insist, that (c) when you both go to the cafe on Saturdays, meeting is all that you do.

Alleged rule

These distinctions are easily made in speech, by stressing the appropriate word; which in (a) would be Saturdays, in (b) cafe and in unlikely (c) meet. That’s not possible in writing, however, unless you resort to italics, which would indeed make things clear but is generally frowned upon. So there are circumstances and sentences in which the pedants’ alleged ‘rule’ is worth following. The judge cited above would have been doing so to the letter if what he actually said was (3) “use the evidence to show only that...”

And no one could fairly accuse him of pedantry: courts, unlike cafes, are formal places, and clarity and exactitude in them are good things (as someone could usefully remind a good many judges). But a true rule, true on all occasions, the pedants’ one is not. Obeying it may add to clarity, and the pedants are not being silly, or simply wrong, in putting it forward. But to insist on it is wrong, and silly too.