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Follow Only the Rules

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According to Griffiths, this tome "offers a satellite Polaroid of the current language and avoids on principle any suggestions about how to air-brush up your style." It is willing to accept such sentences as "They invited my partner and I to lunch" because they are often used.

Be that as it may, one point in the article that interested Rosie particularly was Griffith's discussion of the importance of care in the use and placement of words.

He says:

"Take the case of 'only.' The Cambridge Grammar observes wearily: 'There is a long-standing prescriptive tradition of … saying that in writing only should be placed immediately before its focus … This is another of those well-known prescriptive rules that are massively at variance with actual usage.'

"For purposes of linguistics, sharp focus on current English is entirely legitimate, but there are things we may, and perhaps should, want to know about our language other than those …description can reveal. Such as what Ben Jonson meant when he wrote:

'Drinke to me, only, with thine eyes,

And I will pledge with mine;

Or leave a kisse but in the cup,

And I'll not look for wine.'

"He was not asking Celia to restrict her drinking of healths to his alone but either calling her his 'onely' or, more likely, saying that her eyes were the one intoxicant he needed. …

"The traditional usage is actual in his lines every time somebody reads them with understanding; it was still going strong when Dick Powell, in a Busby Berkeley musical, sang the magnificent compliment 'I only have eyes for you.' Put the only elsewhere and the schmooze evaporates: 'Only I have eyes for you' (nobody else would look at you twice); 'I have only eyes for you' (I like looking but don't want to touch); 'I have eyes for you only' (the others leave me cold) — none of them matches the hyperbole of 'I only have eyes for you.'"



Let Rosie hear from you by mail, Style Weekly, 1707 Summit Ave., Richmond, Va. 23230; by e-mail, repps@styleweekly.com; or by phone, 804-358-0825.

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