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I know that questions about the placement of 'only', are often asked here; accordingly, I searched for an answer to my question before posting it.

Question

Where are focusing adverbs placed relative to prepositions?

For example,

  1. For his presentation, he needed to talk only about tomatoes.
  2. For his presentation, he needed to talk about only tomatoes.

My Attempt to Answer the Question

In both examples, it seems to me that 'only' is placed close enough to what it is intended to modify (the topic of the subject's discourse: tomatoes) that I cannot see any justifiable misinterpretations.

One of the examples sounds better to me, but at this point in my studies, I am more interested in what the traditional rules of grammar require, than in how the wordings sound.

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In fact, if you try (1) and (2) with also, instead of only, you'll see just how different. –  John Lawler May 28 '13 at 14:39
    
Yeah, good point. I revised the question. Thank you. –  Hal May 28 '13 at 14:39
    
English verbs often go through changes when adding a preposition. Consider "He ran up the hill" versus "He ran up the bill." In the latter case, ran+up shifts the meaning of the verb to run to something akin to accumulate. For your sentence example, I am not sure if your central verb is talk or talk about. When you "talk about your neighbors," you are probably gossiping. When you "talk only about your neighbors," you might still be gossiping, but you are restricting the subject to the neighbors, as opposed to, say, your co-workers. –  rajah9 May 28 '13 at 14:48
    
Thank you. I added clarification. –  Hal May 28 '13 at 15:08
    
@rajah9 talk about is NOT a verb. I'm not aware that that phase necessarily implies gossiping, and none of the dictionaries I've looked at support that assertion. Also they all suggest that talk about XYZ is used as an emphatic phrase, e.g. used informally and often ironically to add emphasis to a statement ⇒ all his plays have such ridiculous plots — talk about good drama! (www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/talk-about). See also www.chambersharrap.co.uk/ and oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/talk?q=talk+about#talk__38) –  TrevorD May 28 '13 at 15:29

2 Answers 2

I think I found the answer. It's Focus.

Here's what McCawley 1998 says, page 68, Chapter 3
(Tests for Deep and Surface Constituent Structures):

iv. Placement of Elements with Focus

There are a number of words in English (only, even, too, also) that are associated with a focus: an element that is implicitly constrasted with other items, as in John drinks only beer, where only serves to contrast beer with such other items as wine or vodka; that is, John drinks only beer says that John doesn't drink wine, that he doesn't drink vodka, and so on.

Only usually precedes its focus, but need not immediately precede it; for example, John only drinks beer can be interpreted with beer as focus even though only is separated from it by drinks. ...

While only can be separated from its focus, it cannot be put in front of just any matter that precedes the focus.

The rule for only is that

  • only can precede
    • either the focus itself,
    • or any constituent containing the focus.

This means that, in the sentences

  • He needed to talk only about tomatoes.
  • He needed to talk about only tomatoes.

there is no difference in meaning or grammaticality.

Only can come immediately before the focus tomatoes, or it can come before the preposition phrase about tomatoes, which contains the focus. Indeed, only can come before the verb phrase needed to talk about tomatoes, which also contains the focus, with no change in meaning or grammaticality.

  • He only needed to talk about tomatoes.

Of course, the further away only is from its focus, the more ambiguity is possible, because there are more possible focusses in a large constituent; that means that the focus is normally stressed heavily to identify it. This is not possible in writing, since there's no written intonation or stress except in the mind's ear. So keeping such an item close to its focus is usually good advice for writers.

Though it's not a grammar rule.
The grammar rule is as stated.

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Good answer, but I think you could be a bit more explicit about ambiguity -- it's really that there's not necessarily any change in meaning or grammaticality, rather than "no change in meaning or grammaticality." Compare: "He only needed to talk about tomatoes, so why did he end up throwing them at us?" –  Merk Oct 20 '13 at 0:35
    
Stress is not consistently marked in writing, and therefore written sentences are far more ambiguous than spoken ones. Ambiguity is the responsibility of the author and the readers, not the grammar. The grammar just describes how the words go together to make a sentence, not how clear the sentence is. –  John Lawler Jan 18 at 18:39

I would say that your first option

For his presentation, he needed to talk only about tomatoes.

is preferred. I'm afraid that I can't give you a grammatical explanation, but to me (as a native British English speaker) it sounds correct and your other option sounds slightly more awkward.

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I agree, on both accounts. I cannot think of a logical grammatical explanation, either, but it seems that only is generally just awkward when placed between preposition and object—but only when the prepositional phrase is an argument to a verb. When it is a free-standing adverbial phrase, both positions are used, though with different foci: “By only doing X, you cause Y” vs. “Only by doing X do you cause Y”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 17 at 10:41

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