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From NPR

INTRODUCTION: This passage mainly describes a record-breaking rain in Britain. Prime Minister David promised that money is no object in the flood response, but in the mean time, hundreds of environment agency workers who respond to the floods were laid off. According to this, Labour leader Ed Miliband suspected that there is not enough money in fact. BTW Shapiro is the NPR correspondent.

ED MILIBAND: If money is no object as he said, is he committing now to reconsider these redundancies?

SHAPIRO:Cameron would not make that commitment. He said the U.K. is spending record amounts on flood prevention, and that's only possible because the government has made other tough choices on spending.

  1. What's the meaning of record amounts? Does it mean the amounts are on record or the amounts are the highest in history?

  2. Does the word only is relevant to because? I know a phrase called only because, meaning something happens or possible for a particular reason**. But the word possible in the middle of the two words make me suspect that the word only is not relevant to because but to possible. In other words, is there any phrase like only possible without because following it?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Record amounts means “amounts which constitute a record”—as you say, the highest amounts in history.

Only because is not a fixed phrase, it is only a happenstance collocation of the two words. The adverb only, means approximately “this and no other” or ”this and no more“. Where it should be placed in a sentence like this has been controversial for a long time. There are two broad schools of thought on the subject:

  1. The Traditional school holds that only precedes the constituent it modifies and argues:

    • that in this case the clear meaning is that the Government's spending is possible “for this reason, and no other”;
    • that only should therefore be placed before because, which is the term it modifies;
    • and that placing only before possible would imply that what is meant is “possible, and not something else such as likely or certain”.
  2. The Modern school holds

    • that only does not modify because, but the entire predicate with its qualification is possible because &c, bearing thus the sense is not otherwise possible than because &c;
    • that the proper place for only is therefore immediately after the copula is, which does not ordinarily accept a pre-positioned modifier;
    • and that this parsing is sanctioned by universal practice, since nobody except a handful of fatuous self-constituted ‘experts’ with no authority whatever puts only where the Traditional school calls for it to be placed.

My own opinion is that although in some cases the Traditional principle (only precedes the constituent it modifies) must be followed in order to avoid ambiguity, in this case there is no such ambiguity and it makes no difference at all whether you put only before or after possible.

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I think my opinion is exactly the same as yours. The Traditional position must be to some extent wrong/incomplete, because it debars too many constructions that many or even most native speakers are perfectly happy with. It's worth noting that in OP's specific example, if we needed to "force" the less likely (but "formally/strictly" implicit) interpretation whereby only did in fact modify possible, we'd do that by placing exaggerated stress on possible, and leaving a slightly longer pause after it than normal. Thus making it blindingly clear it's the only word being modified. –  FumbleFingers Feb 16 at 4:49
    
@FumbleFingers Exactly; although I have to admit that I myself, in speaking or writing, put only in the Traditional position. It is difficult to overcome the advantages of a good education. –  StoneyB Feb 16 at 5:02
    
There's no reason why you change - you still have the majority behind you in the US... –  FumbleFingers Feb 16 at 5:19
    
... it's us Brits who are pushing for change (more accurately, we've always accepted both forms). But once the pressure to fall into line with US usage dies off (as seems to be happening), I think it's very likely the only possible because version will actually become far more obviously the favoured one. –  FumbleFingers Feb 16 at 5:22
    
@FumbleFingers As you may see here we're resolving the problem by ceasing to address it. –  StoneyB Feb 17 at 18:08

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