Question: “One of my pet peeves is placing the word ‘only’ next to a word it does notmodify and away from the word it intends to modify.
I waited to send this to you until I found a misplaced ‘only’ in your column. Your recent ‘Real vs. really…’ column concluded by saying, ‘Adjectives only modify nouns.’ (If the only thing adjectives do is ‘modify,’ then they must not explain nouns, or quantify nouns, or strengthen nouns, etc.) I believe the sentence should be “Adjectives modify only nouns.”
Many years ago my grammar teacher impressed me with her emphasis on placement of “only” in a sentence. I must have been the only person who had that teacher, or the only one who paid attention in her class, since it seems more often than not writers and speakers violate her rule. To dramatize how the placement of ‘only’ can change the meaning of a statement, my teacher would post the following sentence on the board. Then she would ask which blank you would fill with ‘only:’
“________SHE _______SAID______SHE_______LOVED _______ME________.”
I love your column and look forward to it every week. You make complicated grammar rules easy to understand. Your column helps all of us clean up our grammar.” (Rollin Dick, Carmel)
Answer: You caught me! I confess: Sometimes I get to writing too quickly and my simple modifiers (only, barely, just, etc.) start hopping all over the place. It’s a bad habit.
You and your teacher are correct. Adjectives like “only” should be placed as closely as possible to the words they are modifying, so as to limit any possible confusion. Otherwise, you can wind up with a “misplaced modifier.” This might not be grammatically wrong in all circumstances, but our goal should always be to write as clearly as possible. Let’s look at some variations of your teacher’s sentence:
“Only she said she loved me.” Sad, but hey, at least somebody does, right?
“She only said she loved me.” What more should she say?
“She said only she loved me.” Well that’s … slightly stalkerish.
“She said she only loved me.” I guess this is one of those “I love you but I don’t like you right now” situations.
“She said she loved only me.” Now there’s a sweet sentiment. You should take her to the drive-in!
It’s a short and sweet lesson this week, but an important one: Place modifiers as close to the thing they modify as possible. As you can see above, even a single word moved around in a sentence can create a very different meaning – and I won’t always be around to provide hilarious commentary if it does.