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Ambiguity and How to Express It

Ambiguity is not easy to express, when you miss the subtle aspects of words like also, even, only. As you may have realised from our past lessons in the e-zine, these adverbs of addition, exception and restriction often ‘focus’ their meaning on either a part of the sentence, such as a noun phrase or a verb, or the whole of the sentence following the subject.

Depending on which element is ‘focused’ by such words, the sentence can be slightly ambiguous. Check out the following examples:

1) “My brother only lent me his books.”

Your intonation will give a different meaning to this sentence, as follows:

i) If you stress the word lent, then you’re saying something like:
“He didn’t give them to me – he only lènt me the books.”

ii) If you stress the word books, then you’re saying something like:
“He didn’t lend me anything else (like his computer); he only lent me his bòoks.”

It's an ACCENT game!

Watch the accents in the following sentences - this is what makes all the difference in the meaning of the message.

2) “He’s not only a good actor; he’s also a succèssful actor.”
3) “He’s not only a successful bùsinessman; he’s also a successful àctor.”
4) “He’s not only a wrĭter; he’s also a successful àctor.”

The underlined words are those which are ‘focused’. It is advisable to put the focusing adverb as near to the focused element as possible:
- only and even IN FRONT of it
- also and too AFTER it

This is how you pick out the meaning of sentence (ii) above, by writing either
- “He lent me only the books.” – or
- “He only lent me the books.”

Only and even in front-position focus on the next element of the sentence – usually the subject:

Only one of us was aware of her secret.”
Even the TV presenters make mistakes sometimes.”

But watch the difference:
“His wife also is a good driver.”
I too thought the news was wonderful!”

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