Limiting Modifier

Limiting Modifiers

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

Easy Examples of Limiting Modifiers

  • Martin knows hardly anybody.
  • Martin hardly knows anybody.
  • Only Martin eats pears.
  • Martin eats only pears.

Real-Life Examples of Limiting Modifiers

  • Space is only an hour's drive away if your car could go straight upwards. (Astronomer Fred Hoyle)
  • I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens. (Filmmaker and actor Woody Allen)
  • Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. (Writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley)

Why Should I Care about Limiting Modifiers?

A limiting modifier can make the meaning of a sentence ambiguous. Look at this example:
  • Jack only eats ice-cream.
What does this mean? Well, it's likely to be telling us that Jack eats nothing but ice-cream, but it could mean Jack does nothing to the ice-cream other than eat it. (So, we know he doesn't make it or play with it.)

To avoid any ambiguity, place your limiting modifier immediately to the left of the word(s) it governs. In the examples below, the limiting modifiers are underlined and the words they govern are in bold:
  • Jack only eats ice-cream.
  • (Jack does not throw the ice-cream.)
  • Jack eats only ice-cream.
  • (Jack does not eat strawberries.)
  • Only Jack eats ice-cream.
  • (Jill does not.)
In speech, you will usually get away with an ambiguously placed limiting modifier, but, in formal writing, you should spend a few seconds to think about its positioning.

The most common limiting modifier is only.

In the quotations below, the limiting modifiers are not immediately to the left of the words they govern. Therefore, they are technically ambiguous.
  • 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.)

Key Point

Place only immediately to the left of the word(s) it governs.
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