This Elephant of Style award goes to Duluth Trading Company, which declares the price for its Longtail T shirt to be “Now only 2 for $23”.
DTC isn’t the first or last to be bit by that snaky little “only”, a trickster modifier that the writers in Paragraph City often troll their rough drafts to find. Like a shapeshifter, it usually can slide into any sentence in two or three places, sneaking the meaning away from the writer as it does.
“Only now 2 for $23” suggests time is running out; “Now only 2 for $23 indicates that a more equible price might be 3 or even 4 for $23 — or perhaps that this was the pre-Now price; “Now 2 for only $23” suggests a bargain. But the real bargain is the word only. We pay for just four letters and get a little circus of possible meanings, one for every ring under our big top.
“Only” has cousins, though, that shapeshift nearly as well, including “just” and “nearly” both used and checked and firmly nailed in place in the above palaver.