Where you place the word only in a sentence can make the difference between being logical and seeming ridiculously illogical—that is, if you and your reader are paying attention. Only is a modifier that needs to go right up next to what it modifies if the sentence is going to be clear. If it strays too far away from what it modifies, it seems to refer to something else, and often that something else makes no sense. Here’s an example:
I asked him his opinion only because I wanted to include him, not because I was truly interested.
I only asked his opinion because I wanted to include him, not because I was truly interested.
In the first sentence, only is placed next to the clause it modifies: “because I wanted . . . .” In the second sentence, the only refers to “asked,” as if I mean to say that asking was the only activity I performed. I didn’t object, challenge, or accept—I only asked, and I didn’t ask for anything except his opinion. Obviously, the first meaning is the intended one.
If we were writing in classical Latin, our word order wouldn’t make nearly as much difference as it does in English. That’s because Latin is an inflected language, as is, to a degree, modern German: the words in a sentence have certain forms, many of them endings, that show which words relate to which. In English, we have mainly word order to signal who’s who, who did what, or what modifies what. That’s why only needs to snuggle up to what it refers to.
Here’s an another example, borrowed from a colleague of mine:
I hit him only in the eye yesterday.
I only hit him in the eye yesterday.
At first glance, this example is a lot like my first one, just shorter. In the first sentence, I’m saying that, although I confess to hitting him the eye, I protest that I didn’t hit him anywhere else. In the second instance, I’m saying that all I did was hit him. I didn’t spit in his eye or poke him in the eye or bloody his eye. But you can play with this sentence even more.
Only I hit him in the eye yesterday.
No one else performed this cruel deed—just me.
I hit him in the eye only yesterday.
I hit him in the eye just a day ago.
I hit only him in the eye yesterday.
I was tempted to hit his cronies, but I refrained.
I hit him in the only eye yesterday.
Okay, a stretch—even if he had only one eye, the sentence isn’t as elegant as if I’d written, “I hit him in his only eye yesterday.” But you get the drift: an eight-word sentence can have just about six different meanings depending upon where only goes.