I am reading the book Learning Python by Mark Lutz, in which there's a passage I don't understand:

I also want to thank my original editor at O’Reilly, the late Frank Willison. This book was largely Frank’s idea. He had a profound impact on both my career and the success of Python when it was new, a legacy that I remember each time I’m tempted to misuse the word “only.”

Emphasis added. What does he mean?

  • 3
    This is clearly meant as an in-joke, a statement alluding to something specific that Frank Willison was ephors well-known for doing or saying (like correct people when they used the adverb ‘only’ in an ambiguous manner). It is not intended to be understood by everyone, only those who have personal knowledge of the writer's relationship with Willison. Oct 9, 2013 at 17:05
  • My guess is it's a reference to the Life of Brian skit: "What have the Romans ever done for us?". Apparently, not only did they give us the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health. They also gave us peace (for a while, at least). Oct 9, 2013 at 18:47
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    @FumbleFingers No, it is about where Frank thought that one should stick one’s only for a punchier sentence. I would probably dig out examples of his if I looked deeply enough. Here’s the simple exercise: Find any sentence where the word only immediately precedes the verb. Try moving that only to one or another part of the sentence. Frank’s position was (something along the lines of saying) that nine times of out of ten, this produced a stronger, punchier, less wishy-washy sentence that stuck better in the reader’s mind.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2013 at 0:41
  • @tchrist: oic. Well, my one would have been funnier. But I have to say I'm deeply suspicious of any general principle that involves classifying (presumably, a quite prevalent) use of the word "only" as "misuse". Only, it's only a word, innit? Oct 10, 2013 at 1:27
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    @FumbleFingers We’re filtering Frank through several levels of transmission, so it’s become a game of telephone, so we don’t know for sure what the orignal was unless I dig it out of old mail somewhere. I have 858 instances of only in my last book, almost all of which got sent through the “Frank-Willison only transform” so you can see what I mean. I’ll mail you then when I get a spare moment.
    – tchrist
    Oct 10, 2013 at 14:37

4 Answers 4


It means that Willison, as his editor, corrected Lutz many times on Lutz's (mis-)use of the word 'only' in some context that he doesn't specify here. Lutz remembers Willison's legacy as an early supporter of Python each time Lutz stops himself from mis-using the word 'only' in a way Willison wouldn't approve.

  • 6
    This is the correct answer. Frank Willison was my good friend as well as my editor, and his point on only was that it usually deserves a better home than immediately before a verb the way most people use it. It makes a stronger adjective than it does an adverb, where its overuse has made it weak. I have tons of gems from Frank; he was a terrific wit. See here. I still miss him, badly.
    – tchrist
    Oct 9, 2013 at 17:16
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    @tchrist, thanks for that link. Those are real gems. I shed a tear for this man who died (at my age!), and much too soon - though I never heard of him until today. Oct 9, 2013 at 18:05
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    @tchrist Thanks so much for adding this comment to my answer, and for the link that shows what an astute, funny man Mr. Willison must have been. I only wish you had gotten here first to answer this question in a much more personal way than I was able to.
    – adj7388
    Oct 9, 2013 at 18:11

"Only" is not a keyword or reserved word in Python, and so the author is probably referring to some egregious or incorrect use of the word "only" in English sentences, which use was corrected in some memorable way by the man he identifies as the original editor. Unless you have the original manuscript which contains the incorrect usage you're not going to be able to "get it."

May I suggest that if you are sufficiently interested, you might contact the author (his email is likely publicly available) and ask. No doubt he would enjoy sharing the story!


Not being familiar enough with Python, I couldn't tell you exactly what it means.

But given the context, it's likely an "in-joke" about the programming language that requires an understanding of the material.

Or it might be a personal anecdote on the character of the individual. Given that "only" is an absolute term, the individual may be someone who doesn't care for absolutes, and thus it would be a joke on his character.

I suggest reading the book a bit and seeing if it makes some sense with an understanding of the language. If not, then it is probably the latter.

Edit: One thing I do know about Python is that it is (compared to other programming languages) flexible by design. So it is possibly a joke on that very nature - most programming languages are fairly rigid, so the high flexibility by comparision means that Python "only" being able to work in a certain way would be something the author might've frequently been corrected about by Frank Willison.

  • 2
    Yes, we need more context. But this is probably relevant: “Only”: The Most Insidious Misplaced Modifier I'd put 'only' in most of these usages in the 'limiting modifier' word class if I had to put it anywhere - 'adverb' doesn't make too much sense. Sometimes it's a pragmatic marker (= only went and . . .) Oct 9, 2013 at 16:59
  • This has nothing to do with Python. It has to do with word-order only.
    – tchrist
    Oct 9, 2013 at 23:15

"Only" is also often used in talking about price. Advertisements will have ".... only $9,999" - to which Im tempted to wonder in what strange new sense they're using "only".

But there are times when it's necessary: "Harry is an only child".

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