In my Recipe for Fat-Free Business Writing, I recommend cutting words from your writing that end in ly. I’ve found most of these words–actually, really, totally, completely–can be (easily) deleted without changing the meaning of the message.
However, one ly word that is sometimes necessary is the word “only.” Used as an adverb, “only” means solely or exclusively and is used as a modifier that provides added description in a sentence.
To avoid a misplaced modifier, it’s important to place the word “only” as close as possible to the word it modifies, usually right before it. If you place only in the wrong spot, it can change the meaning of the sentence and confuse your readers. For example:
- Only the team can propose changes to the company dress code.
- The team can only propose changes to the company dress code.
- The team can propose only the changes to the company dress code.
The meaning of “only” changes in each of the three sentences.
- Only used in the first sentence means no one else can propose changes to the dress code. Only the team can…
- Only used in the second sentence means the team is limited to proposing the changes, it can’t do anything else with them. The team can only propose…
- Only used in the third sentence means the team can’t propose other kinds of changes. …only the changes to the company dress code.
Only isn’t the only adverb to watch for when using adverbs as modifiers. Look for nearly, almost, scarcely, too and also to make sure the meaning of the sentence is (perfectly) clear to your readers.