Word Placement: For Your Eyes Only

Poor word placement is one of the causes of mangled meaning. Another is the way we place emphasis in a sentence. It often comes down to just one word.

A matter of emphasis

We all know how placing emphasis on a word – by using the voice or typing it in italics or bold – can alter the meaning of  a sentence.

One of my favourites is:

a) My dog has fleas (yours doesn’t seem to).

b) My dog has fleas (but the cat’s OK).

c) My dog has fleas (he doesn’t need any more).

d) My dog has fleas (I mean, it’s not rabies!)

And this one:

a) I can do that (but you can’t).

b) I can do that (so don’t you dare say otherwise).

c) I can do that (even though I can’t pronounce it).

d) I can do that (but not the other thing).

Subtle word placement

As well as how you say a word, it’s also important where it goes.

The use of the word ‘only’ can demonstrate how word placement in a sentence can entirely change the meaning of what you write and say.

Take a simple sentence:

I read printed newspapers.

Now insert the word ‘only’. There are 3 possible positions it can take.

1. Only I read printed newspapers

This suggests that I am the only person in the family, the class, the group or even the world who reads the printed version of the paper.

This sentence is quite clear and unambiguous, even if unlikely.

The word ‘only’ refers to the word ‘I’.

2. I only read printed newspapers

This is the sentence you are most likely to hear or read.

It can mean two things – and it might also depend on the emphasis:

a) I do nothing else – ever – but read printed newspapers.
Clearly that’s impossible, and a silly thing to say, but it’s one interpretation

b) I only read them; I don’t wrap rubbish in them, burn them or eat them.
You get the idea. 

Here’s the problem. My guess is that, probably 10 times out of 10, people who write or say sentence #2 don’t mean to convey either of these things.

The sentences are problematic because the word ‘only’ refers to the word ‘read’.

What they almost certainly mean is:

3. I read only printed newspapers

This implies I read printed newspapers, not digitalised news pages/sites or the new format you can project onto your hand (!)

The sentence is clear and unambiguous. The word ‘only’ refers to the word ‘printed’. 

I chose a slightly silly example to emphasise the point. Most people would understand the meaning either way.

As an editor, I see many other examples. Sometimes the placement of just one word makes a crucial difference.

Look again at my post title

There are several possibilities for word placement, again focusing on ‘only’:

a) Only for your eyes (don’t bother using your brain to think)

b) For only your eyes (and no one else’s)

c) For your only eyes (no, just weird!)

d) For your eyes only (deliberately ambiguous, which is why I chose it).

Try the same exercise with these sentences:

  • He plays tennis on Saturdays. (4 positions for ‘only’)
  • She is my wife. (3 positions for ‘only’)
  • My dog has fleas. (4 positions for ‘only’).

It makes a big difference, doesn’t it?

Word placement, like the emphasis you place on different words, affects meaning. 

With just a little thought, you can make it clear.

See other ways to Lift Your Language.

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