This post is the first installment of Comedy Grammar – yay!
But first, I promised to publish the three best telephone conversations from readers of my previous post, so I’ve created a special page on my website called Writer’s Clinic. Whenever I invite readers to submit their writing it will be on this page, along with my comments. Click here and enjoy the first installment.
Thanks to everyone who wrote phone conversations. You all caught on to this device very quickly – congratulations! Those of you whose conversations I was unable to publish on the Writer’s Clinic page have received an email response from me.
And now for the post…
i want Only to Both learn how to write properly And have good grammar (and Either you’ll get it Or you won’t)
Here’s a pet peeve of mine: writers not knowing exactly where to put “only,” “both…and,” and “either…or.” Although most of us get what the writer is trying to say, it’s bad business to plop these words into your sentences and have them splatter like mud pies, wreaking grammar havoc all over your manuscript.
How can you tell where to put these pesky words? It’s a snap, because there is only one rule you need to know for all of them:
The words “only,” “both…and,” and “either…or” qualify or modify the word or phrase that comes immediately AFTER them.
Yes, it’s a mouthful, but it’s only one mouthful. When we get to “both…and” and “either…or,” I’ll let you in on an extra little secret. But we’ll start with the singleton.
The Lonely Only
This tricky little word trips up even the most experienced writers, but remember the new rule and you’ll be an expert at once. Let’s have some fun with this one:
- Only it qualifies the word that comes after it.
This means that nothing else except “it” is allowed to qualify the word that comes after it.
- It only qualifies the word that comes after it.
It qualifies the word that comes after it, but it certainly doesn’t do anything else to it; it doesn’t eat the word, spell the word, or get rid of the word.
- It qualifies only the word that comes after it.
It qualifies one, single word – the one that comes immediately after it; it does not qualify the sentence that comes after it, the paragraph that comes after it, or the preposition that comes after it (unless, of course, that preposition is the word that comes after it).
- It qualifies the word that only comes after it.
It does not qualify the word that sings after it, or the word that yells after it, or even the one that jumps after it.
- It qualifies the word that comes only after it.
But it doesn’t qualify the word that comes before it or above it or below it.
This is the big sister of “only.” Sentences that contain this combination have two entities you need to deal with. We still use the framework of the above rule, but: 1) both “both” and “and” qualify the word or phrase that comes immediately AFTER EACH of them, and 2) Whichever part of speech comes immediately after “both” must be the same part of speech that comes immediately after “and.”
(A word to the wise: the combination “both…or” does not exist. Just writing it gives me the chills.)
Here we go:
- He both bit and slapped me.
He did two things to me. (“Bit” and “slapped” are both verbs.)
- He bit both me and my mother.
He bit two people. (Both “me” and “my mother” function as direct objects here.)
- He is both a biter and a slapper.
I don’t like this guy.
- Both he and his wife are biters and slappers.
Just goes to show you that every pot has a lid.
- I am going both to Philly and to Boston.
Here I needed to use the word “to” twice because it was placed after the word “both” and thus needed to be repeated after the word “and.” Many writers forget to add this second “to.”
- I am going to both Philly and Boston.
Since I placed the word “to” before “both” in this example, I didn’t need it after “and” – and it would have been incorrect had I placed it there. This is one of the most common “both…and” mistakes.
- Abraham Lincoln had both a lanky body and a beard.
Ol’ Abe had two, uh, distinctive physical characteristics.
- Abraham Lincoln both wrote the Gettysburg Address and delivered it.
Because there is a verb after “both” there needs to be a verb after “and,” and thus Abe must to do two things with the Gettysburg Address.
- Abraham Lincoln wrote both the Gettysburg Address and his inauguration speech. Lincoln must write two speeches; the verb “wrote” comes before the word “both” and therefore applies to both entities.
- Both Abraham Lincoln and his wife were sitting in Ford’s Theater on that fateful evening.
By the way, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Okay, now it’s getting even trickier, which is why I have saved this one for last. But you’re getting to be such an expert that I have full confidence you will learn this one quickly and easily. (BTW, it’s perfectly fine to begin a sentence with “But.” In fact, this is the sixth time I’ve done it in this post.)
Although the “both…and” rule applies to “either…or” as well, somehow writers get all weird with this one and start tossing their “eithers” and “ors” all around the place like a boxer throwing wild punches.
- Either we go to Vegas or your parents go to Vegas.
That town ain’t big enough for the four of us. I can’t stand your parents, and therefore if they go to Vegas we stay in Bakersfield. (The pronoun “we” follows “either,” so the noun “your parents” follows “or.”)
- Either we go to Vegas or we jump off the roof.
Both of us will do only one of two things: go to Vegas or jump off the roof; your parents, on the other hand, have decided to stay in Barstow, where they belong. (The pronoun “we” and the verb “go” followed “either.” Therefore, we need a second (pro)noun-verb combination to follow the word “or,” i.e., “we jump.”)
- We either go to Vegas or jump off the roof.
This is a slight modification of the previous example. Because the pronoun “we” comes before the word “either,” we don’t have to repeat it on the other side of “or.” Writers who do not subscribe to Bulletproof Writing frequently get this wrong.
- We go either to Vegas or to Jump off the roof. In this example we have two choices of vacation venues: one is Vegas and the other is a new city called “Jump off the roof.” I think I’d rather go to Vegas.
- We go to either Vegas or Jump off the roof. Also a slight modification of the previous example. We might go to that oddly named city (never, EVER put a hyphen between an adverb and an adjective), or we just might go to Vegas after all. I hope your parents won’t be there.
Put On Your Editorial Hat
I challenge you to find a violation of the only–both…and–either…or rule in a newspaper article, a book, or a blog. Send me the paragraph in which it occurs, along with your correction. I’ll publish a few of them on my next blog.
Good luck with your writing, and all the best,