I found this neat bit of grammar trivia when I was cleaning up some editing handouts I got during the SFU Writing & Publishing Program. I thought it was neat (because I am a grammar geek) and I think learning is fun. Yes, I’m a big nerd — and kinda proud of it!
It’s actually interesting if you have any desire to learn more about the English language.
The position of only in standard spoken English is not fixed; stress and intonation provide all the clarification needed. In edited prose, only tends to be placed immediate before (sometimes after) the word or words it modifies.
Only I hit him in the eye yesterday.
(no one else did any hitting)
I only hit him in the eye yesterday.
(I didn’t shoot him in the eye)
I hit only him in the eye yesterday.
(I didn’t hit anyone else)
I hit him only in the eye yesterday.
(I didn’t touch any other part of him)
I hit him in the only eye yesterday.
(He had just one eye)
I hit him in the eye only yesterday.
(Not long ago— recently)
I hit him in the eye yesterday only.
(Not any day other than yesterday)
Now, I must apologise as the handout I received did not have a source referenced. After some Google-fu, someone on Wikipedia seems to think that it is from The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein (first published in 1977), based on a sentence that appears in G. & C. Merriam’s Word Study.