“Only” – An Unsung Hero!

unsung hero

“Only” is the hardest-working little word in the English language.  It does stuff that other words just dream about.  It modifies nouns, it modifies verbs, it connects phrases and, depending on where you place it, it can change the entire meaning of any sentence.  “Only” has so much talent; I’m sure all the other words are jealous.  But does anybody sing the praises of “only?”  Do you ever hear, “Good job, ‘only?’ or “Thanks, ‘only!’ You really spiced up my sentence?”  Nope!  Never happens!  The truth is, nobody thinks about “only.”  It just hangs out in the dictionary with all the other words (who don’t do half as much work, BTW) waiting for some writer who’s searching for subtletyThat’s when “only” jumps into the literary fray, without hesitation or fanfare, and gets the job done.  And what a job!  Here are just a few examples of what “only” can do.

It can kick-start an argument

“You phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
A legitimate statement, invitation or dismissal.
“You only phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
Suddenly, somebody’s a jerk and the war’s on.

It can convey emotion.

“He lost his friend when his dog ran away.”
Aww, that’s too bad.
“He lost his only friend when his dog ran away.”
OMG!  That’s s-o-o-o-o sad!

It can turn an ordinary evening into something special.

“She was wearing an apron when he came home.”
“She was only wearing an apron when he came home.”

Pair “only” with “if” and you get a ton of regret.

“If I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”
“If only I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”

Lawyers love “only” because it can mitigate the circumstances.

“She robbed the bank.”
“She only robbed the bank.”

But it can also assign blame.

“When the fire started, he tried to save himself.”
What a quick-thinking individual!
“When the fire started, he only tried to save himself.”
Selfish bastard!

Or it can turn a good deed into a reprimand

“She cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Very responsible.
“She only cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Lazy snot!

Or it can change the meaning entirely.  And this is where “only” really flexes its muscles.  Take a look at this single simple sentence.

“She told him that she loved him.”

Now, sit back and see how “only” changes the meaning — seven different times.

Only she told him that she loved him.
She only told him that she loved him.
She told only him that she loved him.
She told him only that she loved him.
She told him that only she loved him.
She told him that she only loved him.
She told him that she loved only him.

I think it’s time we all take a moment out of our busy lives, pour a glass and drink a toast to “only,” the unsung hero of syntax and semantics.

“Here’s to you, ‘only!’  Keep up the good work!”

Never Say “Never”

never“Never” is a self-absorbed  bastard who hangs around our vocabulary doing nothing except making trouble.  Sure, every once in a while it might bestir itself to state the obvious like “I’ve ‘never’ been to Papua New Guinea,” but in general, it spends its days sittin’ on its ass.  You see “never” hardly ever (notice how I did that) comes up in ordinary conversation.  It thinks it’s too important for that pedestrian activity.  The only time “never” goes into action is when somebody’s jumped into the deep end of their ego pool and clearly can’t swim.  Then, and only then, “never” turns into this verbal ninja, dishing out the hyperbole like it’s Chuck Norris and turning every discussion into the War Of The Words.  Let me show you what I mean.

We use “never” when we’re pissed off —
“You never really loved me.”
Wow, that’s a big statement which pretty much throws 20 years of marriage, two kids and a mortgage under the bus.  Is it true?  Probably not.  It’s just “never” showing off and trying to make things difficult for the other guy.  What this actually means is “In recent history, you’ve been a dick.  You need to clean up your act, buddy.”  Unfortunately, “never” just turned that into the Shootout at the O.K. Corral.

We use “never” when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves.
“I never get anything.”
Clearly, this isn’t the case or we’d be twiddling our thumbs at the corner of Starvation and Depravity in beautiful downtown Mogadishu.  This is just “never” allowing us to indulge ourselves in an overdose of 1st World Problems.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, we got it rough! We didn’t notice Netflix doesn’t have Season #3 of our current TV binge and we’ve already put the self-buttered popcorn in the microwave.  Oh, woe is me!

We use “never” to trot out the self congrats
“I never eat junk food.”  “I never gossip.”  “I never have drama.” “I never look at Social Media.”
Hold it right there!  This is the 21st century: we live on this stuff.  This is “never” adding a few gratuitous strokes to our already plus-size egos.  If — by some miracle — any of us even knows someone who’s never (not ever) done any of these things (not even one of them) we’re probably Tibetan monks living in a cave.

And if that’s the case, what the hell are you doing reading this on the Internet?

The Power of “BUT”

butThe most powerful word in the English language is “but.”  It’s a grammatical Liam Neeson with a very particular set of skills that kicks ass.  It’s way better than that greedy little “and” who’s always looking for something extra the minute he shows up.  And, don’t get me started on “or:” grammar’s Hamlet, who couldn’t make a decision if his life depended on it.  No, for sheer conjunctional word power, go with “but” every time.  Here’s why:

1 – “but” sugarcoats the punch in the face — When you want to rip somebody a new one but you don’t want them to get so angry they go home and get a shotgun, throw in a “but.”  For example: “Jennifer, you are one of our most valued employees, conscientious and hard-working, BUT you have the math skills of a goat, and if you don’t get with it, I’m going to fire you so hard your grandchildren will be unemployed.”

2 – “but” pleads your case — When you know you screwed up and you’re looking around for something else to blame, use “but.”  Once again: “I know I drove your car into the side of that guy’s house, BUT you didn’t tell me it had sticky brakes when I borrowed it.”

And if you play #2 correctly…

3 – “but” can even get you off the hook — “Normally, I’d pay for the repairs to your car, BUT if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have ever known about those bad brakes.  Actually, I did you a big favour.”


4 – “but” lets us look on the bright side — When your situation seems about as bleak as the slums of Mordor, try “but” to turn the lemon into lemonade.  “Hey, bro!  Sorry I had sex with your wife and your little sister last month after your birthday party, BUT they both phoned today, and guess what?  They’re not pregnant.  Cool, huh?”

And finally the most badass tool of all:

5 – nothing important ever gets said until someone says “but.” — In any conversation, discussion or argument, you can discount everything that’s said before “but.”  In fact, you don’t even have to listen.  Check it out:

“I understand your point of view, but only the part that happened before you opened your mouth.”
“Of course I agree, but not enough to quit arguing with you.”
“That’s an interesting opinion, but I’m not all that familiar with LooneyTunes cartoons.”
“Certainly, this current refugee problem is a crisis of biblical proportion and Western governments have a moral obligation to offer as much assistance as possible but what are all these gypsies, tramps and thieves doing in my country?”
“I like pasta, too, but there’s no way I’m eating that Italian glue tonight.”
“I’m not a racist but, man, those people are weird.”
“I love you dearly, but if you leave the toilet seat up one more time, I’m going to shoot you in the head.”
Etc. etc. etc.

So here’s to you, “but,” you sassy little conjunction!  Thanks for always being there for us.