Limiting modifiers are exactly that. They limit the word they modify. Most of them are four-letter words, and well they should be, because like many other four-letter terms, they can cause a lot of trouble.


Consider this sentence, which appeared in a publishing industry publication just last week: "These discussions were based on the reality that university presses aren't just being hurt by the bad economy, but by changes in reader habits."


Hmm. Something seems off there!


Consider a sentence from the 1980s, discussing the European travel arrangements for former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. They evidently had to ship some furniture with them: "Nancy and Ronald Reagan only sleep in their own bed."


Too Much Information! 


What's off and what's too much about these sentences? Their limiiting modifiers are in the wrong places. Nancy and Ron may only sleep, and do nothing else in their own bed, but do we really want to know that? More to the point, was that what the writer really wanted to communicate? No, he intended to say that they sleep only in their own bed, and in no other bed. Moving the "only" makes the sentence match the intention.


Same with those beleagured university presses. They "aren't just being hurt by the bad economy, but by changes in reader habits." It would seem they aren't just being hurt but also being . . . something else? Parallel structures lead us to think something is missing - a parallel activity or condition to "being hurt." I would guess the writer wanted to say the presses "are being hurt not just by the bad economy but also by reader habits." 


Watch those limiting words, like "just" and "only." A quick exercise makes it even clearer.


Mol corrected only three editors that afternoon. (She was moving rather slow, for her.)

Only Mol corrected three editors  that afternoon. (Everyone else was too afraid)

Mol only corrected three editors that afternoon. (She really wanted to smack them, instead.)


Ah, the power of placement! 


And the power of misplacement. All contributions to the Egregious Grammar file, as a compatriot in the field calls it, are gratefully accepted here - add a few of your own! And for further information about this sort of problem, try a few of Patricia O'Conner's books

Woe Is I 












as well as Lynne Truss's bestselling Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves 


Message Edited by Ellen_Scordato on 07-01-2009 05:39 PM
by Blogger Michelle_Buonfiglio on ‎06-24-2009 07:11 PM

I just love your columns, Ellen!


by SDFicklin on ‎06-24-2009 09:14 PM
I love just your colums, Ellen!
by on ‎06-24-2009 09:25 PM
I love whatever was just said! 
by twi-ny on ‎06-29-2009 01:56 PM
i love your just columns, ellen!
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