FROM HIEDI

I wrote this sentence and my friend says it's wrong, but she can't tell me why. All she says is that it doesn't say what I'm wanting to say, but I say it does. Is there anything wrong with it?

I only wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.

RESPONSE

It's a perfectly grammatical and meaningful sentence. Whether it's wrong depends on the meaning you want to convey, and it all hinges on the placement of one word: only.

"Only" is one of the slipperiest words in the English language. It can modify nouns, verbs, adverbs, or phrases, and with inflection, it can often do this from in front or behind the thing it modifies. Also, it can have different meanings depending on how it's used. It is one promiscuous word, lemme tellya. Let's take your sentence and examine all the possible meanings it could have depending on the location and inflection of "only".

1. Only I wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: I, and nobody else, wanted to take the snake. Also, a comma or ellipse after "only" in this sentence can change its meaning to "except", which is common in dialogue.

2. I only wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: Most would read this as "only" modifying the phrase "wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety". It's used to minimize the action often because the action resulted in a far greater consequence than intended. However, grammatically (and with inflection when speaking), it means I wanted to take the snake, but implies that I didn't actually take it. Also, with inflection, "only" could modify "I" and mean "alone", but that's pretty affected.

3. I wanted only to take the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: Again, most might read this as a slightly more affected way to minimize the action. However, grammatically (and with inflection when speaking), it means I wanted to take the snake, not wound or kill or sedate or whatever other things you could do with a snake.

4. I wanted to take only the ringed snake from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: The boy had several things (maybe several snakes), one of them was a ringed snake, and I wanted to take it from him.

5. I wanted to take the ringed snake only from the boy for his safety.
Meaning: With inflection, it could be an emphasized version of #4. But grammatically, it means several people were holding ringed snakes, but the boy was the one I was concerned about.

6. I wanted to take the ringed snake from the only boy for his safety.
Meaning: There was a single boy in a group consisting of all females or all adults or adults and girls, and I wanted to take the snake from him.

7. I wanted to take the ringed snake from the boy only for his safety.
Meaning: I didn't want to take the snake for any other reason but the boy's safety.

So there you go. "Only" is one shifty customer. But I might add that even if a sentence using "only" conveys the wrong meaning grammatically, in dialogue, it's probably just fine; people speak ungrammatically ALL the time. But in narration, you might do well to keep a keen eye on where you tack "only" in a sentence.