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In the following examples:

A: Would you know if a shop was a woman's or man's only by looking at the clothes?

B. Would you know if a shop was a woman's or man's by only looking at the clothes?

Is there a difference in meaning? If so, what is it? Which is preferred (i.e. 'more correct')?

  • From Garner's Modern American Usage 3rd Ed: Only is perhaps the most frequently misplaced of all English words. Its best placement is precisely before the words intended to be limited. The more words separating only from its correct position, the more awkward the sentence; and such a separation can lead to ambiguities. Yet the strong tendency in AmE is to stick only right before the verb or verb phrase regardless of the illogic. – Michael Login Apr 28 at 11:47
  • I think those two senteces put emphasis on two different parts. One on the knowing process the other on the tool for knowing process! I am a learner though! – Cardinal Apr 28 at 14:34
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Their meaning is usually the same, and both are equally natural. You can also say "by looking only at the clothes" and "by looking at only the clothes", and those are also natural.

The meanings can be different, because phrases with only are often syntactically ambiguous: only could apply to more than one part of the sentence, so it's not clear which part is in question. Only usually applies to the first thing after it, but it can also apply to the last thing before it instead:

  • "Would you know if a shop was a woman's or man's only by looking at the clothes?" could be "... (a woman's or man's only) by looking..." or "... (only by looking ...)".
  • "by only looking..." could be "by (only looking) ..." or "by only (looking at ...)": the first specifies looking, not looking plus something else (touching?); the second specifies looking at the clothes, not something else.
  • "...by looking only at the clothes" is presumably "by looking (only at the clothes)", but it could also be "by (looking only) at the clothes".
  • "...by looking at only the clothes" is unambiguous.

This sounds hopelessly ambiguous, but often the difference doesn't matter, or only one interpretation makes sense. In this sentence, only (looking at the clothes) is the most likely interpretation, so the ambiguity isn't a problem.

(However, "...by looking at the only clothes" means something very different: it implies that there aren't any other clothes, and that this is noteworthy. (Maybe you expected more clothes. So this won't work for this sentence.)

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The rule is: You should place 'only' as close as possible to the word you want to limit. In Example (A) , 'only' can mean that the shop is only for men or women. In Example (B), 'only' means you are concluding by looking only, not by anything else. So it depends on what meaning you want to convey.

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