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Which sentence is correct?

  • (A) Mosquito larvae can only be seen through a microscope.
  • (B) Mosquito larvae can be only seen through a microscope.
  • (C) Mosquito larvae can be seen only through a microscope.

2 Answers 2

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(A) Mosquito larvae can only be seen through a microscope.
(B) Mosquito larvae can be only seen through a microscope.
(C) Mosquito larvae can be seen only through a microscope.

As pointed out in this answer, only focusses on another constituent in the sentence, which is usually stressed, and which controls where only can appear in the sentence.
The rule is that only may appear
either

  • Immediately before its focus,

or

  • Immediately before any constituent that contains its focus.
    (exactly like Russian dolls)

(B) is a little unusual, but not incorrect. (A) and (C) are both fine. They all mean the same thing, but each has different possibilities for focus, viz:

  • (C) means that either a microscope or through a microscope is the focus of only.
  • (B) means either the verb seen or the verb phrase seen through a microscope
    (a focus on seen is unusual, unless it is contrastively stressed to mean (e.g) 'not heard')
  • (A) means that any of the above constituents can be focus.

Some people might not like (B) because the normal place for operators like negatives and only is after the first auxiliary verb, and (B) places only after the second one. However, auxiliaries are elided and contracted so often in English that the difference isn't really important or even perceptible, especially since only is much more complex than a simple negative like not.

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I'm willing, I guess, to be the foil to John Lawler and his sagacious answer and add a few not-so-sage sentences.

With the advanced photographic technology available to us today, we can see mosquito larvae quite nicely, thank you, in pictures. Hence, option (C) requires slight modification. E.g.,

"Mosquito larvae can be seen only through a microscope or in a picture taken by a PAXcam digital camera via fluorescence microscopy used in cell biology studies."

Or, much more simply:

Mosquito larvae can be seen only through a microscope or in a picture taken by a PAXcam digital camera."

As for options (A) and (B), each is likely to be heard today coming from folks who lack a certain, uh, preciseness in their speaking and writing. Let me be quick to point out, however, imprecision does not necessarily equate with incorrectness. If you understand what a person is saying, who cares if s/he says it in a less-than-precise way. More often than not, drawing attention to a misplaced only will leave you only feeling embarrassed (or is that "leave you feeling only embarrassed"? or "only leave you feeling embarrassed"?).

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    Specificity has a use, and so does generalization. English has structures for both, unsurprisingly. Generalizing instead of specifying is inappropriate in some contexts, and vice versa. Neither says anything about mental characteristics of the people who do them. Aug 28, 2013 at 21:41
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    @JohnLawler: You had me until "Neither says anything . . .." Sometimes inappropriate specificity or inappropriate generalizing can tell you a great deal about a person. Granted, the person judging the inappropriateness could be dead wrong, but not necessarily. That said, I'm a firm believer in the concept "Judge not lest ye be judged," which is very helpful indeed when I'm tempted to discern the motives of people without getting to know them first. Abe Lincoln said, in effect, "Hmmm, I don't like that man. Guess I'd better get to know him!" Aug 29, 2013 at 0:22
  • That last sentence is best phrased as "More often than not, drawing attention to a misplaced only will only leave you feeling embarrassed."
    – Marthaª
    May 27, 2014 at 0:51
  • @ Marthaª: Yeah, I like your version better! Thanks. Don May 27, 2014 at 2:38
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    Yes, different sentences and different contexts have different acceptability ratings. Some sentences need rephrasing, end of. Some need rephrasing in certain contexts. But as studies by Svartvik & Greenbaum showed, post-grad students of English Language do not agree on the 'acceptability' of various sentences, so 'acceptability' is ill-defined. Apr 26, 2020 at 13:09

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