Only His Only Grammarian Can Only Say Only What Only He Only Means.

Peter G. Neumann, SEN Editor (1976-1994)
ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes 9, 1, Jan 1986, p. 6.
Copyright Peter G. Neumann, 1986,1997

In response to the apparently rampant rage of the misplaced only, and perhaps also inspired by some of William Safire's columns in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, I offer the following annotated examples. (Italics indicate spoken stress, and parentheses indicate the presence of something that would be implicit even when spoken.) Please bear with me on this one. You may have to devote a little patience to each case. However, a conclusion you should be able to reach with no trouble at all is that the extent of ambiguity in the written English is awesome, but that we can hide some of it in speaking the same words -- through suitable placement of emphasis (and with the help of a tolerance or ambivalence on the part of the listener). May you learn to put the only ``only'' only in the correct place. Note that the other places that you might put the italicized only in the previous sentence (e.g., before the first, second, third, or fourth words) also result in different meanings.

1. Only(,) I said he thought secret users may write secret data.
2. Only I said he thought secret users may write secret data.
3. I only said he thought secret users may write secret data.
4. I said only (that) he thought secret users may write secret data.
5. I said only he thought secret users may write secret data.
6. I said he only thought secret users may write secret data.
7. I said he thought only (that) secret users may write secret data.
8. I said he thought only secret users may write secret data.
9. I said he thought only secret users may write secret data.
10. I said he thought secret users only may write secret data.
11. I said he thought secret users only may write secret data.
12. I said he thought secret users may only write secret data.
13. I said he thought secret users may write only secret data.
14. I said he thought secret users may write secret data only.
15. I said he thought secret users may write secret data only.

Note that ignoring the added stress and implicit parentheticals (as one would in written English), various of these cases would appear indistinguishable from one another, reflecting inherent ambiguity in the written language; these cases are 1 and 2; 4 and 5; 8 and 9; 10 and 11; 14 and 15. If you are still with me, here are some suggestions to help you interpret at least one possible meaning in each of the above cases. Even with stress added, some of these cases are still ambiguous. And I have completely ignored the ambiguity between Secret-level users and users of secrets, assuming the former for simplicity.

1. But I didn't say what you said I said. What I really said was ...
2. No one else said so. Only I did.
3. I didn't really mean it. I just said it.
4. I didn't say anything else.
5. I don't think anyone else thought so!
6. But he wasn't really sure.
7. He thought only that, and did not think anything else.
8. But not Unclassified or Top-Secret users.
9. But not Secret daemon processes or administrators.
10. Ambiguous! Depending on whether there is an unspoken pause or not after only, we have one of two cases:
The writer must be a user, and a Secret user at that, to write Secret data; OR
The only thing secret users may do is write Secret data (and nothing else -- not even breathe).
11. They are permitted to write, but perhaps they are unable to.
12. But they may not read such data.
13. But they many not write Top-Secret or Unclassified data.
14. They may not write secret procedures.
15. Ambiguous! Several of the above interpretations are possible, depending on substresses, pauses, and facial expressions.

© Peter Neumann, 1986.


Another sentence, provided by Peter Ingerman, is the following:

I did not say that he stole the money.

By placing the emphasis on different words (not just one word repeated) it can take one very different meanings:

And then combinations of emphasis make interesting meanings:


Last updated 2000/03/16
© J.A.N. Lee, 2000, except as noted.