Sunday, July 29, 2012

I Only Saw Her Yesterday

The word 'only' in English can have many meanings. Taken out of context, it can even lead to misunderstandings. 

I saw her only yesterday.

This sentence could mean that the speaker had never seen 'her' until yesterday; on the other hand, what the speaker means could be that he/she even saw the other person ('her') as recently as yesterday.

As many other adverbs, 'only' also often tends to be placed between the subject and the verb (or, as the case may be, between the auxiliary verb and the main verb) of a sentence - particularly in informal usage. The above sentence, in both its senses, could be phrased as follows:

I only saw her yesterday.

In speech, it's usually possible through intonation to see which part of the sentence 'only' refers to. But in writing it may be ambiguous unless the meaning is clear from the context. For example, 'I only saw her yesterday' could mean either of the two things mentioned earlier; or perhaps that the speaker saw her, but didn't do anything else like talking to her; or it could be that the speaker saw no one except her yesterday.

Of course the sentence could have been rephrased as follows to avoid ambiguity in the last scenario above:

I saw only her yesterday.

And then there are other cases.

Trying to explain things to her will only make her angrier. (It'll have an undesirable effect, rather than a good one.)

You only can guess what she'll do next. (It's all you can do, though it's not going to help much.)

We only just caught the bus. 

In this sentence, they've just managed to catch the bus, but could well have missed it too.

If only I could speak to him once more. / If I only could speak to him once more.

Here the word 'only' doesn't really have a restrictive sense, but is being used in a structure that expresses a wish. It's similar to saying 'I wish I could speak to him once more.'

It is for members only.

Especially in official settings, 'only' - in the restrictive sense - is placed after the noun it qualifies, as in the above example.

She was the only one who helped me. 

When used as an attributive adjective this way, 'only' expresses the uniqueness of the noun it comes before; it's one of a kind. There's no room for ambiguity here. The above sentence, for example, asserts that only 'she' helped the speaker.

I'd like to help you, only I'm too busy right now.

This gives the reason why the speaker can't help the other person although he/she wants to do so. This type of structure is often used to present an excuse for not doing something, without hurting the others' feelings. (Here - and in the next example - 'only' functions as a conjunction.)

He looks just like his father, only taller. (If there's any difference, it's just that the son is taller.)

(Image credit: Sarah_Ackerman)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

To Hit the Headlines

The title and other headings of a document are generally expected to stand out. So, among other things, people like to use some capital letters in them. But which letters do you put in upper case, and which not? There seem to be several styles in this regard.

Sometimes you find that all the letters of a title are capitalised.


In other cases, only the initial letter of a title is in capital form (unless of course it contains any other word - like a name - that must begin with a capital letter).

The rise and fall of socialism

The rainfall statistics of India

However, this pattern is sometimes preferred for sub-headings as the emphasis given in this manner is considered insufficient for main headings and titles. So some sources - in particular American ones -  favour a style where all the words of a main headline begin with a capital letter.

The Rise And Fall Of Socialism

Simple and effective as these methods are, they're not to everyone's liking. Some seem to think it's more appropriate to capitalise the initial letters of important words. The trouble begins when deciding which of the words should be considered important. Once again several different styles are in use. Let's see the common norms of this selective method first.

(1) Capitalise all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that...).

(2) Capitalise the first and the last words no matter what type they are. 

Now we'll turn to what's not to be capitalised. One rule says that articles, prepositions and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so - denoted by 'FANBOYS') are always lower case (unless of course they’re the first or the last word of the title). Although articles and coordinating conjunctions are treated like this by almost everyone using a selective capitalisation style, there are differences when it comes to prepositions. While some such writers put them all in lower case, others tend to capitalise those with four letters or more; still others do so only when they have at least five letters.

Gone with the Wind
Gone With the Wind

Much Ado about Nothing 
Much Ado About Nothing

However, even a short preposition has to begin with a capital letters if it occurs as the last word.

Things We Are Proud Of

Care should also be taken not to put words like 'be' (verb), 'is' (verb) and 'it' (pronoun) in lower case just because they're short.

How to Be Punctual  

What It Is Supposed to Be in Ten Years 

Also consider the following:  

A Cruise up the Nile (Here 'up' functions as a preposition.) 

How to Put a Picture Up on a Wall (Here 'up' is an adverb for the verb 'put'.) 

How to Set Up a Computer (Here 'up' is part of the phrasal verb 'set up' - and used adverbially.)

So if you're not quite sure about the function of these short words in a particular context, it might be better to avoid the selective styles and settle for one of the methods mentioned earlier. And it's important to select your style and stick to it within a document.

(Image credit: Unlisted Sightings)

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