In the use of only, natural idiom is often at odds with logical word order. It is quite natural to say John only gave his sister 5 dollars. But purists would say that only relates to 5 dollars, and so should go directly before it: John gave his sister only 5 dollars. In the same way, they argue, I only saw Mary yesterday strictly means that I saw her but did not, say, speak to her; the sentence should be I saw only Marry yesterday (I saw Mary, but not her husband Edward or any of her children) or I saw Marry only yesterday (it was only yesterday that I saw her).
In informal Usage, however, the most natural place for only is usually just before the verb. The context usually helps to make the meaning clear, and in speech the intonation does too: in the previous example, a stress on Mary or Yesterday (or saw) would accurately convey the sense intended.
But if ambiguity really does threaten, it is doubly important to position the only as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. Suppose you received the following note:
? I shall only send you 5 dollars towards the appeal if you write to me again.
Would you write again, or not? A properly helpful and unambiguous message would position the only either before 5 dollars or before if, depending on the intended meaning.
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