11 January 2012

'only' peeving on the comics

i read all of my daily comic strips online now.  one of the serious downsides to this is that gocomics.com has a comments thread(!) on every single strip that they post.  they don't generate the same type of bottom-dwelling stuff as youtube comments, but they are some of the most mirthless places on the internet.  nothing is worse than going all Van Hœt on something that's just supposed to be harmless fun.  so i wasn't surprised, but still baffled when i saw this response to a Frazz comic a few weeks ago:

misplaced a modifier? what? i wasn't even familiar with this language peeve. yesterday i was catching up on my RSS backlog, and found a post about "The elusive 'misplaced only'" on Jan Freeman's blog Throw Grammar From The Train. it details how this peeve works: basically people swear up and down about a relationship between linear order and scope involving only, despite the fact that English doesn't work that way.

so the "only fetishists" would like Caulfield to put only immediately preceding heartburn, because they are blinded by dogma and can't see that it modifies the entire VP. all in spite of the fact that putting it there makes the sentence actually sound worse. in other contexts it would sound worser and worser. compare the following constructed sentences, also using heartburn just for fun.
my uncle went to the ER yesterday because he thought he was having a heart attack…

but it turned out he only had heartburn.
?but it turned out he had only heartburn.
moving only makes the sentence sound worse.  put it in the progressive and it becomes even more terrible: he was having only heartburn??  not modern English. so no, our only conclusion here is that neither Caulfield nor Jef Mallett misplaced a modifier.  he put it exactly where it's supposed to go.


Miriam said...

I once read someone in the comments of some blog reminiscing smugly about "learning" from her childhood Latin teacher that the title of the old song I Only Have Eyes for You was "really" an insult, because it supposedly meant "I'm the only person who has eyes for you".

I also have eyes, which I was rolling SO HARD.

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