What Are Limiting Modifiers? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Limiting Modifiers

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

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.

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?

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, if the author of the second example meant "Jack eats nothing but ice-cream," then – technically speaking – the second one is a mistake. So, applying this same level of pedantry/accuracy (depending on your viewpoint), we have to say these famous quotes are also mistakes:
  • 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.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are modifiers? What is a misplaced modifier? What is a dangling modifier? What is a squinting modifier? What are determiners? What are intensifiers? Glossary of grammatical terms