The Importance of Word Order

By Barry Willis

Almost all music fans have heard the classic love song “I Only Have Eyes For You.” Its title and refrain both leverage “only” the way it’s typically used in conversational English, even though its placement in the sentence renders a meaning that is probably not what the songwriter intended.

English word order is relatively strict, unlike languages such as Latin or Russian, whose word forms change with function. For clarity in English, adjectives, and adverbs need to be as close as practical to the words they are intended to modify. Assuming that “only” means “alone” or “exclusively,” as written and performed, the line “I only have eyes for you” means literally “I am the only one who thinks you are attractive,” clearly not a winning compliment to a potential mate.

“Only” is among a handful of English words that are regularly misplaced. The actual intent of the song’s title line is “You are all I see,” understood as a pledge of devotion by everyone who sings or hears it. The original lyric works with the song’s meter, but its meaning would be completely unambiguous and grammatically correct with the words rearranged to “I have eyes for only you.” With the same number of syllables as the original, it might work well with the song’s meter too.

Which is the better answer to the question “How much money do you have?”

“I only have twenty” or “I have only twenty.”

The first answer, “I only have twenty,” probably means “Twenty is all I have,” but could also mean “I alone have twenty,” with an implication that other people have more or less than that amount. On the other hand, “I have only twenty” makes a clear statement that twenty is the respondent’s cash limit. Curiously, answering the question with a short phrase such as “only twenty” eliminates any potential misunderstanding.

Another commonly misplaced modifier is “just,” which among many uses can mean “simply,” “merely,” “fair,” “equitable,” and “balanced.” The word is often interchangeable with “only.”

In a May 15 opinion column by Diane Butler Bass about the relationship between white evangelicals and former President Donald Trump, the author wrote: “Donald Trump—no matter his personal failings—embodies their deepest beliefs. He doesn’t just represent their interests. He is them.”

Bass knew what she was writing. “He doesn’t just represent their interests” means that Trump is much more than a promoter of white evangelical culture. There’s an implication that he has a more significant role, which she examines in paragraphs that follow. Had she written “He doesn’t represent just their interests,” the emphasis would shift from Trump’s role as a figurehead to whatever else is on the evangelicals’ agenda, a small but fascinating example of how slight changes in word order can alter intended effects.

Awareness of word order can bring new clarity to your writing, but be careful of being too grammatical with dialogue. Narratives should be precise, but you want your characters to sound natural, even if what they say would make an English teacher cringe.

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