Limiting Modifier

Limiting modifiers impose restrictions on the words they modify. The most common limiting modifiers are:
  • Almost
  • Hardly
  • Nearly
  • Just
  • Only
  • Merely

Easy Examples of Limiting Modifiers

In the following examples, the limiting modifiers are shaded:
  • Martin knows hardly anybody.
  • He hardly knows anybody.
  • Only Martin eats pears.
  • Martin eats only pears.

Real-Life Examples of Limiting Modifiers

In the following quotes, the limiting modifiers are shaded:
  • Space isn't remote at all. It's only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight upwards. (Fred Hoyle)
  • It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens. (Woody Allen)
  • Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. (Aldous Huxley)

Why Should I Care About Limiting Modifiers?

To eliminate ambiguity, you should place your limiting modifier immediately to the left of the word(s) it governs. In the examples below, the limiting modifiers are shaded and the words they govern are in bold:
  • Only Jack eats ice-cream.
  • (Jill does not.)
  • Jack only eats ice-cream.
  • (Jack does not throw the ice-cream.)
  • Jack eats only ice-cream.
  • (Jack does not eat strawberries.)
Most people would take the meaning of the second example to be the same as the third example (especially if spoken). However, only the third example makes it unambiguously clear that Jack eats nothing but ice-cream. As, technically speaking, it is eats that is governed by only in the second example, it could be telling us that Jack does nothing to the ice-cream other than eat it (e.g., he does not make ice-cream). So, technically speaking, we have to say these famous quotes have misplaced limiting modifiers:
  • Everyone is born with genius, but most people only keep it a few minutes. (Edgard Varese, 1883-1965) (It should be only a few minutes.)
  • I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way. (Mark Twain, 1835-1910) (It should be only one way.)
In speech, you will often get away with misplacing a limiting modifier. However, in formal writing, you should spend a few seconds to think about where to position your limiting modifier. The most common mistakes happen with the word only.
If you remember nothing else:

Place only immediately to the left of the word(s) it governs.
A list of cognitive biases with examples