“Only” the Lonely
Misplaced modifiers can be a lot of fun–for everyone but the writer. When I teach “boring grammar” to large classes, I like to start by sharing lists of unintended humor compiled from newspapers and writing centers across the country. Everyone has a good laugh and is a little more motivated to be on the lookout for these types of errors:
- Students Cook and Serve Grandparents.
- Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing after dropping and smashing the greasy bottle.
- With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the performance arena.
- Marie carefully studied the Picasso hanging in the art gallery with her friend.
Generally the rule of thumb is to keep the modifier and the word to be modified as close together as possible. The adverb “only” needs to directly precede the word or phrase it is intended to modify. Note how many different meanings result from different placements of “only” in this visual. “She told him only that she loved him” is an entirely different story from “She only told him that she loved him,” and so on. Unfortunately, the misuse of “only” is a relatively subtle and extremely common error. I’ve seen it in scholarly papers, bestsellers, even The New Yorker (who never make grammatical errors, right?).
Consider “I only spoke with Rob.” vs. “I spoke only with Rob.” The first sentence indicates that the speaker did nothing but utter verbal declarations–there was no dancing, eating, playing Scrabble, or any other type of action going on with Rob. The intended meaning is more likely to be the second sentence, where the speaker communicated with Rob and no one else.
If you say, “I only got out of the hospital two days ago,” you are actually communicating that the sole action you performed two days ago was to get out of the hospital (no eating, no meeting with people, nothing but getting out). The accurate wording for your intended meaning would be “I got out of the hospital only two days ago” to indicate just how recently you were hospitalized (and why you are feeling so terrible and exhausted that you are completely justified in using misplaced modifiers anyways, so who’s complaining!).
The Lost Art of Spelling
Here’s what I saw in my neighborhood last week:
OK, I accept that the general level of literacy is declining, and that the human attention span is shorter than that of the goldfish, but seeing huge public spelling errors still makes me sad. Did the person applying the tape not know there was a letter missing, or just decide no one would care about the dropped “s,” or figure it wasn’t worth the time to add space for the missing letter? In any case, I know that people rely too heavily on their spellcheckers, and if someone threw a Spelling Bee Party at a local gathering, the results would be disgraceful. To be a great speller, you need to read a lot, and write almost as often. Both reading and writing are lost arts, sidelined to a shrinking percentage of our population. And unlike misplaced modifiers, public spelling errors aren’t that funny.
Sometimes I feel the creeping dread that we will revert to a public language of ideograms and icons and give up spelling words out altogether. That is why we have the Pie in the Sky Grammar Patrol, ready to right all we write and fight the lost fight! Honestly, some days I wonder why I couldn’t have been simply a person who enjoys TV…
Until next time–just stay tuned to the clouds near you!
(First published in LinkedIn Pulse, March 2016)