Could you please tell me which one of these sentences is correct, or are they both grammatically correct?

This will only happen if you go with me.

This will happen only if you go with me.

  • This has nothing to do with grammar. The short answer is that putting only directly before the verb is usually the least suitable place for it; it is also the most common place for it, because people do not take care to write stronger sentences. There are many duplicates that address this. – tchrist Apr 19 '13 at 16:12

The misplaced modifier is a notorious feature that often crops up in English. 'Limiting modifiers', also dubbed 'multi-purpose modifiers' (accurate if not a very helpful classifier), such as only, even (arguably not a limiting modifier), always, almost, nearly, hardly, merely, scarcely, barely, simply, just, at first, and but (in he was but a youth), are frequently misplaced. They should be placed in front of the noun group etc that they are modifying to avoid confusion.

In the given example, only is 'modifying' the dependent clause, if you go with me and hence the safest place for it to be placed is just before this:

This will happen only if you go with me.

However, this sounds rather starchy, and in this case we can get away with placing it in front of the verb (as it can't be read as modifying the verb in this case):

This will only happen if you go with me.

However, with some verbs, modification by 'only' would make sense. In such cases, the switch to the pre-verb position is not advisable (though it is still used), as the primary meaning would change:

He only jogged back to the jeep when he saw the rhinos approaching. {He should have sprinted.}

He jogged back to the jeep only when he saw the rhinos approaching. {He should have started back as soon as he saw them.}

  • Substituting "just" seems to give 3 meanings. "He just jogged back to the jeep when he saw the rhinos were approaching" {He should have sprinted} or {he only just managed to jog}. But then "He jogged back to the Jeep just when he saw the rhinos were approaching {He should have started back as soon as he saw them} – Some_Guy Oct 19 '15 at 1:23
  • Yes; also, 'just' has the added responsibility of a temporal usage. 'He just finished the course.' – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '15 at 7:37

You would normally say:

This will only happen if you go with me.

However there may be other sentences examples where reversing only and happen may read better.


Bill Franke: "idiom" is about natural use of language and not about speech vs. written language. In the 19th century, some artificial rules were introduced into the English language by grammarians with a better grasp of Latin grammar than English grammar. An example is the rule against double negatives. A look at nearly all European languages shows that double negatives are the rule (French, Spanish, etc - je ne sais rien, no tengo nada, etc) - and it seems to me that the local dialects of every part of England had the double negative originally. In fact, in all parts of England, the "uneducated" seem to use the double negative, but self-appointed grammarians decided it was wrong, based on "logic" and a comparison with Latin grammar alone - and their control of the education system means that people like me have grown up saying "I don't know anything" naturally. This overturns the original natural idiom.

Those grammarians tried, but did not succeed, to achieve a similar overturning of the natural idiom in cases such as "it's me". They didn't really understand English grammar - as "me" is the disjunctive pronoun as well as being the object pronoun: "it is I" contains a serious grammatical mistake. But in any case, few people say "it is I", so, unlike the situation with the double negative, they did not manage to overturn natural idiom.

As you can see, whether to say "me" or "I" as the disjunctive pronoun in copula sentences and whether to use the double negative are not questions of speech vs. writing. Idiom - the natural phrasing of the language - is maintained in good writing too. Coming back to the issue of the placing of "only" in the sentence, an unnatural overturning of the natural idiom was also attempted here by 19th-century grammarians attempting to change the language, not codify the language, but change it, in line with their view of "logic" and Latin grammar. If you are correct that people are more likely to shift the position of "only" in writing, that is only because poor grammarians have convinced them, quite wrongly, that natural English idiom is incorrect.

I agree that there is a colloquial register and a formal register, and to that extent an educated person does not write as he speaks. A greater range of vocabulary and more complex sentence structure can be used in writing. But that does not mean that artificial things spliced into the language that were never there in Early Modern English are correct - grammarians with a weak grasp of English idiom attempted to pervert English into a calque of Latin. "This will only happen if you go with me" is by a long way the preferred natural phrase, both in writing and in speech.

  • The reason your other comment was deleted is that it was a reply, not an answer. This is also a reply and not an answer. I do believe that the flat Earth theory was by far preferred over the round Earth theory, as was the notion that the sun orbited the Earth. You're talking about preferences & aesthetic judgments & claiming that because everyone else likes vanilla ice cream, then so should I. Sorry, but I don't act like the proverbial lemming, even if the rest of the world does. – user21497 Apr 20 '13 at 5:14
  • Bill, you seem to have extreme difficulty in understanding what I wrote. Please read it several times. – David Apr 20 '13 at 11:55
  • I understood your screed. You seem to think that what you think is the only thing to think & that no one else knows anything. I've been studying language for more than 50 years & I've read all the arguments you discovered just last week. What is it about "XXX is how most native Anglophones say it & write it. YYY is how it should be said & written. But don't expect much agreement there & don't expect many native Anglophones to agree....This is politics, not grammar" that you don't understand? Until your style manual rules the usage world, doff the mitre. – user21497 Apr 20 '13 at 12:48
  • OK. I'll leave you to your campaign to import Latin grammar into English. – David Apr 20 '13 at 14:27
  • Maybe you haven't noticed, but language usage mavens & philologists succeeded in that little endeavor a couple of centuries ago when they claimed it was wrong to split English infinitives. Didn't make sense then & doesn't now. I don't know Latin grammar any longer. Haven't studied it since high school. Didn't like it then & don't use it now. But it's sooooooo comforting to have your permission to use the language the way I want to & to fight my own windmills. Any other benefactions you want to confer on the denizens of EL&U? – user21497 Apr 20 '13 at 14:42

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