I had an English teacher, in the days when the Petrified Forest had real trees, who had a reputation for boring her classes stiff. One day however, she started our class with a film about the importance of “word placement.”
The film featured Harry Reasoner, a CBS TV network news anchor of the day. Our whole class collectively rolled their eyes at what promised to be another pointless and boring lesson.
We were oh-so-wrong — as by the end of the class, we were clutching our ribs in pain, howling with laughter.
The filmed lecture began innocently enough, with a quick introduction by Mr. Reasoner. The CBS anchor then wrote on a blackboard the following sentence about a recent incident involving him and a fellow newscaster from the same network:
ONLY I punched Walter Cronkite in the nose.
He then explained — his otherwise perfect total deadpan spoiled by a wicked gleam in his eye — that in this example, “ONLY” at the beginning of the sentence informs the listener that Mr. Reasoner was the sole person who hit Mr. Cronkite. There may have been several other people who wanted to do Mr.C. harm, but no one other than “I” did it.
The lesson proceeded as Mr. Reasoner moved the all-important word “ONLY” to other positions in the example sentence, then explain their subtly different meanings:
I ONLY punched Walter Cronkite in the nose.
I could have done something far worse, perhaps something involving a baseball bat, a shovel, or a crowbar. Instead I decided my fists were sufficient for Mr.C.
I punched ONLY Walter Cronkite in the nose.
There may have been several other people that had been punched during the event, but Mr.C. was the only person that I was responsible for decking.
I punched Walter Cronkite ONLY in the nose.
I could have punched something far worse, but I instead chose to target Mr.C’s sizable schnoz.
I punched Walter Cronkite in the nose ONLY.
Perhaps Mr.C. was punched in several places by two or more people. I however, am taking responsibility for the damage done to his honker.
Thinking back on this, I wonder if the teacher was trying to correct our English grammar, tainted by the word order preferred by Pennsylvania Dutch…? (We do love our dangling modifiers!)
I would love to see this little gem of a film again. But I have searched YouTube far and wide, resulting in abject failure. (It could very well be that I am mis-remembering that Mr. Reasoner was the host, and someone entirely different was the lecturer.)