Monday, July 28, 2008

Word Order Matters (redux)

Grammar geeks get grumpy over the placement of adverbs such as "just" or "only"--they are often simply stuck into a sentence. But their positioning affects the meaning.

You know, 
Only he will buy a car, or 
He only will buy a car, or 
He will only buy a car, or 
He will buy only a car.

However, most times, it's just not that big a deal for the ordinary person. It's pretty clear, most of the time, what it was the speaker/writer wanted to emphasize. The context usually makes it obvious.

In fact, sometimes when I'm listening to people talk, I don't even notice where the "just" or the"only" ends up.

But in an NPR story about a lawsuit filed against the governor of Illinois over how fast the state responds to clemency requests, Cheryl Corley, the reporter/commentator, put a "just" in a very bad spot. And she really threw me. Because, it WASN'T clear what she meant.

There have been 3,000 requests filed during the Bogoyovich administration, but he's just granted 89 pardons, and decisions on nearly 2,000 cases are pending.

(the reporter did stress the word "just")

He just did this? Recently? Like, just the other day?

Could be, right? The story is ABOUT timing, so maybe. 

But look at those numbers--maybe she meant "he's granted *just 89* out of 3,000--that would be a sensible point to make, too. 

For the last few days, since I heard it, I thought she really meant "he's granted just 89 out of 3,000. But today, when I re-listened today, I thought, maybe she does mean "recently."

Word order matters.

And I don't know what she meant.

And it occurred to me this morning, as I walked past the phone booth w/ a pic of Helen Keller and the words "could only see possibilities" (no, she could only *feel* possibilities), that a big part of my problem is that I have been conditioned not to trust people on their adverb/modifier placement.

If I could trust people to always do it strictly according to logic, or if I knew more about the care and precision Cheryl Corley was able or inclined to apply to her work, then I'd know that Cheryl Corley meant "recently."

And maybe that's one reason to pressure people to do it strictly right. But of cousre, that's not achievable.


Editrix said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this. I heard that story on NPR, and the "just granted" thing threw me, too. I found myself not listening to the story anymore because I was too busy examining the sentence, as is my wont.

For the record, I'm horribly sloppy about the placement of "just," "only," and the like. I tend to fling the words around like "Eh, whatever." Your post has inspired me to be more vigilant (or paranoid, depending on your point of view). :)

TootsNYC said...

Usually the word order really doesn't matter that much--people figure it out, it's not usually that unclear.

I wish she'd not used the word "just" or even "only"--and instead said something like

"he has granted a mere 89"


"he recently granted"

I think that when it really matters, "just" and "only" are bad words to choose--because of the sloppiness that we all get away with.

Also, the fact that it was a spoken composition hurt as well. If it had been written, I might have been more likely to assume she meant what she said: "just granted," which is "recently granted."

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