At first glance, it may seem that the precision and regularity of mathematics bear little relation to the notorious irregularity of the English language, but there is one area in which English is surprisingly logical: the position of adverbs such as ‘only’, ‘not only … but…’, ‘just’, ‘both … and…’ and ‘either … or…’. Misplacing them in sentences can have far-reaching consequences for the meaning. Take a look at the following examples:
a) The exam board doesn’t just want you to choose answers at random.
Is this what the writer meant (i.e. The exam board does want you to choose answers at random but it also wants you to do something else!)? It seems unlikely, and should probably have been ‘The exam board doesn’t want you to just choose answers at random.’ or ‘The exam board doesn’t want you to choose answers just at random.’
b) The student gives both examples of why aid is beneficial and why it can be detrimental.
The student’s actual answers reveal that there were more than two examples, so ‘both examples’ is misleading. Presumably, the sentence should be ‘The student gives examples of both why aid is beneficial and why it can be detrimental.’ A key consideration when untangling such sentences is the scope of the adverb, or what is covered by its meaning (e.g. ‘just want’ vs ‘just at random’) – and here’s where the maths comes in: these adverbs work a bit like logical operators in algebra (AND, OR and NOT). It can even help to change the relevant parts of the sentence to X and Y (only mentally, of course!) to make the sentence simpler and to check that the scope of the adverb is correct:
b) The student gives examples of BOTH X AND Y.
A second key consideration is parallelism: the structure should be the same in both parts of the sentence. Algebra can also help here, as the mental or temporary insertion of brackets can reveal the structure of the sentence:
b) The student gives examples of both (why aid is beneficial) and (why it can be detrimental).
It is now easier to see that both parts have the structure ‘why + subject + be + adjective’ and that our sentence is, therefore, correct.
Now have a go with these:
c) The reader is given glimpses into not only the protagonist’s thoughts but also insights into the other characters’ motivations.
d) Reference to the main focus of the question should be made both in the introduction and the conclusion.
e) If the company either cannot reduce the number of staff or pay them less, then they will have to increase the price of their product.
Correct answers (bold, brackets and ellipses used for clarity):
c) The reader is given not only (glimpses into the protagonist’s thoughts) but also (insights into the other characters’ motivations). – structure: noun + into + noun phrase
d) Reference to the main focus of the question should be made in both the introduction and the conclusion. – structure: the + noun / Reference to the main focus of the question should be made both in the introduction and in the conclusion. – structure: in + the + noun
e) If the directors cannot either (reduce the number) of staff or (pay them) less… – structure: verb + object / If the directors either (cannot reduce the number) of staff or (cannot pay them) less… – structure: cannot + verb + object
For more on the position of modifiers, see our previous post on Misplaced modifiers and dangling participles.
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