If I Only Had a Misplaced Modifier

Tin Man

“If I only had a brain.”

“If I only had a heart.”

The Tin Man and Scarecrow had simple requests, but if the Wizard had really listened, then Dorothy’s two loyal companions would have been left without hands, feet, legs, a head … you get the picture.

Such is the power of only. As promised back in March, let’s discuss this commonly misplaced modifier.

Only is considered a limiting modifier, which is why its placement is extra important. Other examples are words like almost, nearly, hardly, just and merely. Depending on where these are put in the sentence, your meaning changes.

Take this sentence, for example: “You should serve fresh, locally produced food to your students.” Let’s see what happens as we move the modifier “only” through the sentence. Watch how the meaning of the sentence changes as the modifier slides over.

  • Only you should serve fresh, locally produced food to your students.
    • No one else. Only you.
  • You only should serve fresh, locally produced food to your students.
    • Not much of a life if the only thing you can do is serve fresh food.
  • You should only serve fresh, locally produced food to your students.
    • That’s right: Don’t even think about serving drinks or anything non-local.
  • You should serve only fresh, locally produced food to your students.
    • Not a bad idea, but very limiting, especially when fresh, locally produced food isn’t available.
  • You should serve fresh, locally produced food only to your students.
    • Tough break for faculty, staff, administrators and guests. Canned food for you!

Only you …

Next time you craft an executive summary, keep the above in mind and, with apologies to The Platters, remember:

Only you

Can start a sentence right.

Only you

Can ease a proofer’s plight.

Only you and you alone

Can set us on the path

To avoid a stubborn grammarian’s wrath.


Don’t be sad. We’ll be back on the first Monday next month with a new blog post. If you can’t wait that long – whether because you have a topic you’d love us to cover, a question or you simply want to throw your two cents into the pot – we love talkin’ shop, so drop us a line.

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