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Do you say, "Write only the answer" or "Only write the answer"?

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I'd say "Write the answer only" :) –  jwpat7 Nov 4 '11 at 16:02
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Both sentences are grammatical, but they seem rather odd in isolation. Are they authentic? It might be helpful if you could give some context. –  Barrie England Nov 4 '11 at 16:56
    
Is this in the context of spoken/written language, or computer terminoligy? –  Jim Nov 4 '11 at 17:25
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Related: Correct position of “only” –  RegDwigнt Nov 4 '11 at 17:30
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3 Answers

They mean two different things.

"Only write the answer" means write it and do nothing else with it. Depending on the context, this might mean "write it, but don't speak it out loud". Or for example if someone said, "Examine this broken automobile part. How would you fix it? Only write the answer", that would mean, "Write how you would fix it, don't try to actually fix it."

"Write only the answer" means to write the answer and nothing else. This would likely mean that you should not write the question on your paper along with your answer, or not include your name, or whatever other information someone might think of writing in addition to their answer.

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Per my comment to @Irene's answer, the third possibility is to place "only" at the end of the sentence - which I think is ambiguous, in that both your interpretations are then valid. –  FumbleFingers Nov 4 '11 at 17:21
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As @FumbleFingers mentions, in casual speech, any of these variations seem okay to me and in fact I'd be likely to interpret all of them as meaning write the answer and don't write anything else. Even in the car-fixing scenario, unless it was terribly obvious that I might otherwise have started my repairs, I'd interpret only write the answer as an admonition to write a brief explanation and not go off into drawing detailed diagrams, discussing further questions I would ask the customer, or showing my process from scrap paper. –  aedia λ Nov 4 '11 at 19:40
    
@Aedia: Well, okay, that gets us back to the inherent ambiguities. My first impulse would be to read the two sentences as "(only write) the answer" versus "write (only the answer)". I suppose one could also read it as "only (write the answer)". I guess if you want to be clear, you'd need to add additional words. –  Jay Nov 21 '11 at 22:35
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The position of the word "only" greatly changes the meaning of any sentence it is used in. "Only write the answer" in my opinion is also correct, but the meaning is: don't do anything else with the answer, just write it.

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If that is the intended meaning (which I seriouly doubt) does anyone need to be told that? –  Barrie England Nov 4 '11 at 17:02
    
The posed question doesn't specify what kind of context the author has in mind, hence my answer focusing on the general difference the position of the word "only" makes. –  DaddyMadCaddy Nov 4 '11 at 18:13
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You can say "write the answer only" or "write only the answer". "only" in the beginning isn't correct and can be replaced with "just", but the meaning is slightly different, ie "do this and nothing else". With "only" you restrict the writing part, not the other actions.

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I think it's more a matter of saying that "only" normally comes before whatever it modifies. If it comes at the end of the instruction, it's ambiguous whether it applies to the composite element write the answer, or just answer (ie - both interpretations set out by @Jay would be possible). –  FumbleFingers Nov 4 '11 at 17:19
    
But "only write the answer" sounds unnatural, doesn't it? –  Irene Nov 4 '11 at 17:22
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Only because the context where it would be "strictly accurate" is a little unusual. @Jay is correct in his interpretation of what it would mean if used "carefully". But in casual speech we're often sloppy about where we put "only", and it doesn't sound particularly unnatural to me, even if the intended meaning is actually write nothing but the answer. –  FumbleFingers Nov 4 '11 at 17:39
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