I want to say:

XXX actually only requires that YYY to be non-negative.

But I feel weird about this sentence. Should I say:

XXX only actually requires that....


XXX actually requires only that....

Which one is better?

  • 3
    More important: remove either that or to.
    – user230
    Aug 10 '15 at 13:25
  • An additional note: the subject ought to read "Does this sentence sound ok?" Aug 10 '15 at 13:40

"actually" really modifies the rest of the statement, so I would write:

Actually, XXX only requires YYY to be non-negative.

  • With this phrasing, there is still a bit of ambiguity. It could mean that [XXX only requires YYY] [to be non-negative], or it could mean that [XXX only requires] [YYY to be non-negative]. If the latter is intended, it could be worded as "Actually, XXX only requires that YYY be non-negative." If the former, this could be clarified with "Actually, to be non-negative, XXX only requires YYY." Aug 11 '15 at 12:20
  • 1
    Actually, I don't really like questions with XXX or YYY; I would prefer real words.
    – user3169
    Aug 12 '15 at 0:34

Placing 'only' in front of 'actually' would change the meaning, since 'only' would then modify the 'actually' instead of 'requires'. As to the position of 'only' before or after 'requires', it's virtually indifferent.

Edited after the discussion in comments: ought to have written "since 'only' would then modify the 'actually' instead of 'requires ...'. (better?)

  • I want to emphasize "only" part. So I guess I should use "XXX actually only requires that..." right?
    – JumpJump
    Aug 10 '15 at 14:06
  • or "XXX actually requires only that..."...
    – JumpJump
    Aug 10 '15 at 14:07
  • I'm not sure what it would mean to have only modify requires. That would imply excluding any more extreme actions than "requiring", but I can't imagine what they might be. I'm okay with This letter only requests a response, it doesn't require one, but I've no idea what possible word could go in This letter only requires a response, it doesn't xxx one. Aug 10 '15 at 14:09
  • @FumbleFingers, Your example with an e-mail only requiring a response is not the same, methinks, because in the original question there is a clause expanding the 'requires' portion, to which the 'only' really applies. Imagine your 'email' statement to have such a clause. It would perhaps stop being awkward, if you build it like this: "This letter only requires a response acknowledging that it was received." Aug 10 '15 at 14:26
  • @Victor: I don't think so. Your counter-example relies on the fact that we're pretty flexible about exactly where only can be placed in relation to the specific word (or entire phrase, requires ... was received in your example) that it modifies. I'm talking about the possibility that in fact only only modifies the verb requires (rather than an entire phrase including what is required), which is what you mention in your answer. Aug 10 '15 at 14:38

If what you want to say is:

1) that XXX has only one requirement, 2) and that the requirement is a condition 3) and the condition is that YYY be non-negative,

and you also want to qualify the above observation with "actually",

then the following would be the most unambiguous way to put it:

"Actually, XXX requires only that YYY be non-negative."

This way you avoid using the to-infinitive, which opens the statement to such interpretations as 1) to be non-negative, XXX only requires YYY; 2) XXX requires YYY only to be non-negative - meaning YYY can be either positive or neutral or in any other state as long as it is not negative.

And putting "only" after the verb eliminates this interpretation: it is only XXX (out of a list of XXX and others) that requires YYY to be non-negative.

Placing "only" just before the subjunctive clause makes it absolutely clear that it modifies the clause.

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