Misplacing the Modifier “Only”

Reader’s Woes

By Annette Rey

We’ve become lazy in our daily speech and that is reflected in our writing. If we become aware of our verbal faults, we will be better equipped to use the English language effectively.

Let’s look at one area of incorrect word placement. Let’s focus on the word only.

I’m guilty of misplacing words when I order coffee from a waitress. I say, “I would like a hot cup of coffee, please.” Now this is not right. What am I actually saying? I am asking for a hot cup, and please put coffee in it. What I really mean by this misstatement is “I want hot coffee in a cup.” So, I should be saying, “I’d like a cup of hot coffee, please.” Do you see the significance of this? And so, as we speak, we write.

To correct such misuses of modifiers, we need to become aware of how we are using words in our every day lives. This brings me to the misplacement of the word only.

Only is a word that, by its placement, can change the whole meaning of a sentence. We don’t want what we say to be misunderstood, so it is up to us to be precise so our reader (or listener) understands what we mean to say.

Examine the following:

The circus was in town only today.  (the circus had a one day schedule)

Only the circus was in town today.  (no other events were being held in town today)


Billy asked me to pack up only the chickens.  (not to pack up anything else)

Only Billy asked me to pack up the chickens.  (no other person asked me to pack chickens)

Billy only asked me to pack up the chickens.  (Billy had no other requests)

Billy asked only me to pack up the chickens.  (no one else was asked to pack chickens)


Only great rivers converge in Back Water.   (no other size rivers converge there)

Great rivers only converge in Back Water.   (great rivers do not pass by individually)

Great rivers converge only in Back Water.   (great rivers don’t converge any where else)


Only Charlie took a violent stand against smoking.  (no one else took a stand)

Charlie only took a violent stand against smoking.  (he took no other kind of stand)

Charlie took a violent stand only against smoking.  (he did not take a stand against                                                                                                    any other unhealthy habit)

Is it clear to you how the placement of one word affects the meaning of a sentence? Do you see how placement of a modifier is pertinent to effective communication?

When you edit your work, concentrate on what you are actually saying to your reader. A misplaced modifier can cause an interpretation that could be a loose thread in your story that unravels the intended meaning, leaving your reader confused and misdirected.

We must strive for clarity in our writing.

We want our readers to keep coming back for more.







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