There is an interesting English sentence which is making rounds in the social media nowadays. It goes like this:

For the following sentence, add the word "only" anywhere in this sentence, and each time you get a different meaning out of the new sentence.

"I hit him in the eye yesterday"

So, if we try doing the above, we get following eight variations.

The Message:

  1. ONLY I hit him in the eye yesterday. (No one else did.)
  2. I ONLY hit him in the eye yesterday. (Did not slap him.)
  3. I hit ONLY him in the eye yesterday. (I did not hit others.)
  4. I hit him ONLY in the eye yesterday. (I did not hit outside the eye.)
  5. I hit him in ONLY the eye yesterday. (Not other organs.)
  6. I hit him in the ONLY eye yesterday. (He doesn't have another eye..)
  7. I hit him in the eye ONLY yesterday. (Not today.)
  8. I hit him in the eye yesterday ONLY. (Did not wait for today.)

The sentence No. 5 and 6 do not look grammatically very correct. What do you guys think? Are all of these grammatically correct or is there a problem with any/some of these?

  • 2
    They're all fine grammatically. For (6) one would normally say his only eye; (7) can mean "as recently as yesterday"; (8) is awkward but unambiguously means "yesterday and no other day". By the way, "what do you think" questions are designed for discussion, and are definitely frowned upon. – Andrew Leach Oct 19 '13 at 11:49
  • (4) also seems ambiguous. It can mean the same thing as (5) – Armen Ծիրունյան Oct 19 '13 at 13:01
  • 1
    I've already answered this question here and repeated it here. The grammar rule is still the same; only and other words of its ilk can appear either immediately before its focus, or immediately before any constituent that contains its focus. – John Lawler Oct 19 '13 at 14:19
  • McCawley looks excellent. And not a mention of adverbs! – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '13 at 15:44
  • 1
    And there can be alternative readings. (2) 'I ONLY hit him in the eye yesterday' can mean I ONLY went and hit him in the eye yesterday (and now I find he's my new boss.) Also, this placing is often used to mean the same thing as 7, with 'only' meaning 'just' in the sense of 'as recently as' rather than 'on no other occasion'.. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '13 at 18:22

4 and 5 have identical meanings, but both make sense. 6 should be written as I hit him in his ONLY eye yesterday in order to have the meaning stated (at the moment it sounds like there is only one eye in the whole world).

So yes, they all make grammatical sense insofar as they can be read and understood, but 6 doesn't really make sense idiomatically.

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