What Are Limiting Modifiers? (with Examples)

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What Are Limiting Modifiers? (with Examples)

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

Positioning of Limiting Modifiers

The word (or words) a limiting modifier governs is usually immediately to its right in a sentence. In each example below, the limiting modifier is shaded, and the word it governs is in bold.
  • Martin knows hardly anybody.
  • He hardly knows anybody.
  • Only Martin eats pears.
  • Martin eats only pears.

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.

Look at these examples:
  • 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, for the meaning nothing but ice-cream, the second example is a mistake. So, technically speaking, we have to say these famous quotes are wrong:
  • 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.)

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