Once in a while, I come across a sentence (from an article, a textbook or even my own mouth) that includes a structure that gives me pause. I look at it, wondering if I’ve ever taught it before, if it appears in any textbook units I’ve taught from. I don’t always notice them as they slip by me, but today, I did. It’s only to.
There is more than one situation where we see only to. Think about it for a second. What examples come to your mind? Write a few example sentences down. I wonder if one of them will be the one I’m referring to. Once you’ve written down a few sentences, scroll down.
How about this one?
a. Like all the great airports, it dates back ONLY TO the last days of the Second World War.
Here, it’s being used to intensify the amount, the last days, in terms of how surprisingly short it is. But no, this isn’t the use I was referring to.
b. “Don’t sure ’nuff me, officer. I’m honey ONLY TO my husband, understand”?
In this one, it’s being used to describe the singularity of an action’s receiver. And again, no, this isn’t the use I mean.
One more for good measure…
c. Amy had to be safe, had to come back to them… if ONLY TO give her parents another chance to do better by her.
This one’s showing the action in the condition may be the one reason to do something. Once more, it’s not the one I’m focused on.
All these above appear in either Dictionary.com (which I tend to use the most), but not the one I was interested in. I decided to check out the corpus, so I went to
Compleat Lexical Tutor and queried a concordance using Brown’s, BBC Spoken and BBC Written corpora with ONLY TO and got this: 136 entries where ONLY TO appeared next to each other. Reading through them more closely, it turns out that the one I was pondering was used 11 times. That’s 8% of the time. Not too much, really. So what is this mystery construction? Here’s the sentence I originally came up with:
I went to the classroom only to realise that I’d left my handouts in my office. And these are the corpus results:
Was it like one of the example sentences you wrote from the beginning of this post? I don’t think if I’d been asked to, it would have been mine. Here, it’s being used to demonstrate an unfortunate result or action that occurred after another. The fact that I’d just noticed it myself, can’t recall ever explicitly teaching it to anyone nor remember it from my textbooks and that it wasn’t an entry in Dictionary.com bring me to believe it’s not that frequent.
Upon further investigation, where I did find it, however, was Oxford Dictionary online and a mention by Tim Bowen on Onestopenglish. Maybe I’d better consider switching online dictionaries. I’m sure it exists elsewhere too in the depths of Practical English Usage or some other treasure.
Are there any peculiar structures or usages that you’ve noticed that don’t seem to be mentioned much (written, spoken or in textbooks)?