Sunday, October 11, 2015

Still Life With Robin: Not All and Only

by Peggy Robin

I was on Amtrak the other day when an announcement came over the PA for those getting off at the next stop: “Attention, passengers! All the doors will not open at the next station stop.”

I wasn’t planning to get off at the next stop, but immediately began to worry on behalf of those who were. If “all” doors do not open, isn’t that the same as “none will open”? Will there really be no way to get off this train? Just as this thought registered in my brain, the announcer’s voice went on, “Amtrak personnel will be standing by the doors that will open. To find a door to depart the train, look for an Amtrak staffperson.”

All right, now it was clear enough -- it was a case of a misplaced “not.” What was meant was “Not all doors will open at the next stop” or better still, “Some of the doors will not open at the next stop.” The announcement was probably written by the same person who decided to tell passengers to look for an “Amtrak staffperson” instead of a “conductor.”

While mulling over the out-of-place “not” as the train rolled on, I found my mind drifting onto the more frequent problem of the ambiguous “only”-- as in “You only get a ten percent discount if you are over sixty.” What is it that’s the “only” thing in that sentence? Is it a discount that’s “only ten percent”? If that’s the case, then the clearer way to put that idea across would be “You get a discount of only ten percent if you are over sixty.” Or is it that only customers over age sixty get the discount? In that case, it should be “You get a ten percent discount only if you are over sixty.”  The ambiguous “only” becomes much worse when there’s another possible meaning for the word “only,” and that’s when children are involved. I have seen this announcement about a contest for children: “Only children between 8 and 12 can enter to win a prize.” Really? If your child has a sibling, your child can’t enter the contest? To prevent the “only child” syndrome, you need to omit the word “only” altogether and put it this way: “Children must be between ages 8 – 12 to enter to win a prize.”

By the time I arrived at my stop, Washington’s Union Station, I realized I had wasted the last ten minutes of the train ride worrying fruitlessly about a matter that was “only” grammatical, when there are so many more substantial concerns at hand. Such as, “Would the Metro be delayed? And if so, how many minutes?” A quick check of the Metro app on my phone revealed that the Red Line was running normally from Union Station in the direction of Shady Grove; the only system alert was for “the Silver Line betw Wiehle-Reston East & New Carrollton stations only.” Clear enough, Metro. Now if only you could get your station announcers to speak clearly over the PA….but that’s a complaint for another column. Today, it’s only “only” and “not all” -- and that's all.


Still Life With Robin comes out on the Cleveland Park Listserv and All Life Is Local on Saturdays or Sundays.


  1. Am I correct in reading your ambiguous use of "only" in your last sentence as a way of determining how well your readers learned their "only" lessons ?
    I assume that's the case, and, if so, I liked it!

    1. I was thinking it was more a way to show how tricky it is to place the "only" correctly. We all tend to put it where it sounds more natural, despite the ambiguity that causes. So you can learn something about grammar and still go on writing and speaking the same way (or at least I do!)

  2. Thank you. These grammar points have annoyed me for years.

    I rarely understand what a metro operator announces. Wouldn't it seem feasible, even simple, to do as Chicago and New York do, and that is, I'm sure you know, have recorded announcements automatically cued to the upcoming stop? And other recorded announcements available to play at the touch of a button?

  3. Yes! Recorded announcements would be a simple, easy solution, and almost every other city in the world with a subway system does it that way. I can still remember the recorded voice of the female announcer in the Athens subway system, announcing the next stop first in Greek and then in English, with just a hint of a Greek accent, and a lovely, well-modulated delivery.
    Our metro elevators and escalators will still break down, and the trains will run behind schedule and the safety record may remain scarily bad, but this is something they could fix quickly, if they had the will!