Friday, July 3, 2015

Misplaced Modifiers and the Power of Only


There have traditionally been some strict rules regarding the use of the word only, the foremost of which is that it is placed directly before the word or phrase it is modifying. You’re probably familiar with the term, misplaced modifier

If one were to write, “I only eat meat,” a reader must infer that the author doesn’t purchase or cook meat, and that he or she is presumably not a cattle rancher. In order to express exclusive carnivorousness, a disdain of poultry, fish, dairy and vegetables, it is preferred one writes, “I eat only meat.” In the latter case, our example won’t be around to vex us much longer, as those arteries are about as clogged as a Los Angeles rush hour freeway.

Very few words in the English language have the power of absolute selection. Only does. Only walks into a sentence, throws its arm over the word it is modifying and bestows upon it a declaration of uniqueness. When it states, “You’re the only girl for me,” the swooning can be heard throughout the dictionary. 

Only can also be the cudgel of the cruel. “Oh, it’s only you.” From the aardvark to the zyzzyva, every creature in the lexicon hears the disappointment and aches for the poor word being modified so dismissively, so disdainfully. For good or ill, it’s hard to imagine a word with more power than only, be it for its implied meanness or its exaltation.

This makes only a contranym of sorts. It means unequaled, matchless, one-of-a-kind, and yet it can also mean merely, simply or just. It can be said with a puffed chest and broad, sweeping gesture of the hand, or with tented eyebrows and a shrug, perhaps a dispirited and blushing look at one’s shoes. “I only had time to edit half of Mike’s book,” the hapless scrivener said sheepishly as he handed over the manuscript. Only is the last refuge of the slacker, the under-deliverer, the non-producer.

Donald Trump being in the crosshairs these days, let’s put some words in his mouth and move the modifier only around a little bit, starting with the sentence, “I only insult Mexicans.” What that means under traditional rules is that Mr. Trump does not speak to Mexicans directly, he does not walk down the street with Mexicans, he doesn’t hire them, fire them or admire them. He insults them and that is the extent of his engagement with them. 

Were Mr. Trump to say, “I insult only Mexicans,” we would infer something different. This means that of all the available ethnicities, religious proclivities, nationalities and other categories of humanity, the only ones he is aiming at, at least these days, are Mexicans.

The word only is a modifier, and what a modifier it is. It modifies like a boss. It modifies with an absolutism most words can only dream of. We have been so woefully short of modifiers that connote individuated exclusivity we had to borrow nonpareil from the French. Nobody does it better than only. And it’s practically made for songs. It rhymes with lonely for Pete’s sake. Springsteen, The Ink Spots and most perfectly, Roy Orbison all went to that well in their songwriting. Embrace the power of only, but be careful where you put it.