Modifier matters

rogersgeorge on November 12th, 2011

Occasionally I harp on where you put “only” in your writing. With the right sentence, you can create a humorous (or disastrous) misunderstanding by inadvertently modifying the wrong word. Here’s a good example of the effect on meaning caused by where you place the modifier. I put the key phrases in italic to make them, um, obvious.

There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult. —C.A.R. Hoare

In this case, the writer wanted to say it both ways to make a point.  Using similar constructions like that calls attention to what he wants to say. Nice.

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One Response to “Modifier matters”

  1. Here’s how David Foster Wallace explained it:

    You have been entrusted to feed your neighbor’s dog for a week while he (the neigh­bor) is out of town. The neigh­bor returns home; some­thing has gone awry; you are questioned.

    “I fed the dog.“

    “Did you feed the para­keet?“

    “I fed only the dog.“

    “Did any­one else feed the dog?“

    “Only I fed the dog.“

    “Did you fondle/molest the dog?“

    “I only fed the dog!”

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