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!
About Unabashedly Bookish: The BN Community Blog
Unabashedly Bookish features new articles every day from the Book Clubs staff, guest authors, and friends on hot topics in the world of books, language, writing, and publishing. From trends in the publishing business to updates on genre fiction fan communities, from fun lessons on grammar to reflections on literature in our personal lives, this blog is the best source for your daily dose of all things bookish.


Since 1997, you’ve been coming to to discuss everything from Stephen King to writing to Harry Potter. You’ve made our site more than a place to discover your next book: you’ve made it a community. But like all things internet, is growing and changing. We've said goodbye to our community message boards—but that doesn’t mean we won’t still be a place for adventurous readers to connect and discover.

Now, you can explore the most exciting new titles (and remember the classics) at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Check out conversations with authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Gary Shteyngart at the B&N Review, and browse write-ups of the best in literary fiction. Come to our Facebook page to weigh in on what it means to be a book nerd. Browse digital deals on the NOOK blog, tweet about books with us,or self-publish your latest novella with NOOK Press. And for those of you looking for support for your NOOK, the NOOK Support Forums will still be here.

We will continue to provide you with books that make you turn pages well past midnight, discover new worlds, and reunite with old friends. And we hope that you’ll continue to tell us how you’re doing, what you’re reading, and what books mean to you.