The drama of “not only…. but also”: when to use it, when not to use it.

In Tips & Tricks by Kali Tal

“Not only X, but also Y.”

This construction is commonly used by native German speakers, when they write in English:

Not only women, but also men are pursuing careers in nursing.

“Not only… but also” is usually used for dramatic effect. It is an inversion of a positive claim, turned around to emphasize an element that contradicts our expectations. Usually, writers say this when they want to change a reader’s beliefs about something. In the above case, the reader is expected to think that only women choose to be nurses. The author wants to change that perception, and uses the element of surprise.

Even the above, very straightforward use of “not only…. but also…” puts a strain on the reader. “Not only women,” tells the reader that they will, later in the sentence, learn something that does not apply only to women (the first subject). “… but also men” lets the reader know that whatever is coming next in the sentence applies to both men (the second subject) and women. When you create a complex relationship between two subjects up like, before they even get to the verb, you force your reader to do mental gymnastics . The more complicated you make things for your reader, the more likely it is that your reader will misunderstand you.

Stripped of drama, what the claim boils down to is:

Both women and men pursue nursing careers.

To emphasize the application of the claim to men, without much drama, you can rephrase this way:

Men also pursue nursing careers.

To make the emphasis on men more dramatic, you can try this:

Men, too, pursue nursing careers. [In English, commas set apart phrases, so the “too” adds drama by making the reader take an imaginary breath.]

“Not only… but” always requires a parallel construction. Here’s an example that dramatically contrasts a single subject with two objects:

Not only is this remarkable product a floor wax, but it is also a dessert topping!

“Not only… but” also works well when the same subject+verb are contrasted with different objects:

We found not only [surprising result A], but also [surprising results B and C]!

Not only did we find [surprising result A], but also [surprising results B and C]!

When you need to dramatically contrast two subjects with the same verb+object, it’s better to bring them up sequentially, so the first subject+verb+object is established in the reader’s mind before the second subject is added.

Not only Jim ran barefoot over fiery coals, but George did too!

Americans are more likely to say:

Jim ran barefoot over fiery coals, and then George did too!

Jim ran barefoot over fiery coals, and George followed!

When you need to dramatically contrast two subjects with the same verb and different objects, it’s also better to bring them up sequentially:

Our experiment was very successful. Not only did Researcher A find Surprising Result X, but Researcher B found Surprising Result Y.

Note the changing form of the verb above. In the inverted half of the sentence, the verb is did find (auxiliary verb [past tense] + main verb [present tense]). In the second half of the sentence, the verb is found (simple past).

A little drama in a scientific paper is sometimes a good thing, but make sure that the drama is in the sentence, and not in reader’s struggle to understand what you mean!