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“Only”: The Most Insidious Misplaced Modifier

How putting the word “only” in the wrong place can confuse your readers

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #358

Stress Can Show What Word or Phrase Adverbs Modify

If we recognize that stress can play an essential part in determining what “only” means, that raises some interesting possibilities. We could just put the “only” before “hit Peter in the nose” and use stress to make all the meaning distinctions. That is, we could say “John only hit Peter in the nose” to mean that he hit Peter and no one else. We could say, “John only hit Peter in the nose,” to mean that he hit Peter’s nose and no other part of his body. The trouble is, stressing a word works better in spoken English than in written English. In written English, it’s still better to put “only” as close to the word or phrase that it modifies, and just recognize that even doing that won’t always eliminate ambiguity. You’ll still need to ask yourself if the sentence could be misunderstood, and find some other way to make it clear if necessary.

Stress even plays a role in one of the earlier versions of the “John hit Peter” sentence. In the “John hit Peter only in the nose,” the “only” is reaching inside the prepositional phrase “in the nose” to modify just “nose.” The reason we might write “only in the nose” instead of “in only the nose” is because the context makes it clear that “nose” is the relevant word. But if for some reason we had to distinguish between John hitting Peter in the nose, above the nose, below the nose, or around the nose, then we’d have to stress the word “in” to show that it was the relevant word, not “nose”: “John hit Peter only in the nose.”

Now that we’ve seen examples of “only” reaching inside verb phrases and prepositional phrases to modify the relevant word, here’s an example with a noun phrase. I was at the barber shop one day, getting my hair cut by Lisa. Lisa was joking around with the other barbers, Ralph, Greg, and Danny, about why their fellow barber Howard wasn’t in that day. Danny said, “Only the manly men came in today.”

But wait—Lisa isn’t a manly man! She isn’t even a man! How could Danny’s wise-guy remark pack any punch with such an obvious mistake? The answer is that “only” wasn’t modifying the entire noun phrase “the manly men”; it was reaching inside that noun phrase to modify just the adjective “manly.” In this example, there’s not even a possibility of putting “only” next to the word it modifies. If Danny had said, “The only manly men came in,” that still would allow the possibility that the unmanly men had come in, too, which is exactly what he was trying to rule out. How did Danny make sure the “only” was modifying just “manly”? By putting the stress on the word “manly.”

Next: Context Matters for Adverbs Too

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