Grammar Moment: Restrictive Adverbs
Adverbs are slippery, sneaky words. They can pop up just about anywhere in a sentence and still make grammatical sense. Sometimes they modify (describe or define) just the verb, and sometimes they modify the whole sentence. They’re the chameleons of the English language, since they can modify a verb, or they can modify an adjective, or they can even modify another adverb.
Restrictive adverbs are sneakier still. These are the adverbs, such as only, just, or not, that modify what’s closest to them – usually the word immediately following, but at the end of a sentence, they can modify the word immediately before with a different meaning. Many restrictive adverbs have an additional characteristic that makes them even slipperier – they can also be adjectives and modify a noun.
Consider this common saying:
All that glitters is not gold.
Think about it logically now. What that sentence is really saying is that if something glitters, it can’t possibly be gold. That’s not what is really meant, since we do know that gold does glitter. Rather, we want to state that if something glitters, it might be gold, but it also might not:
Not all that glitters is gold.
Notice now that the word not is modifying the word all, and now the sentence means what we want it to mean.
As a demonstration of just how slippery restrictive adverbs can be, and how essential it is to get them in the right place to make a sentence mean exactly what we want it to mean, I use this example given to me by a colleague of mine:
My brother lent me two books yesterday.
Now, let’s look at all of the different places we can put the restrictive adverb only:
Only my brother lent me two books yesterday. (Nobody else would lend me anything.)
My only brother lent me two books yesterday. (I don’t have any other brothers.)
My brother only lent me two books yesterday. (He didn’t give them to me.)
My brother lent only me two books yesterday. (He doesn’t trust anybody else with his precious books.)
My brother lent me only two books yesterday. (He wouldn’t lend me any more.)
My brother lent me two books only yesterday. (I haven’t had time to read them yet.)
My brother lent me two books yesterday only. (And then he took them back.)
You can see from these examples that getting those adverbs in the right place is an important task. Getting a not or an only in the wrong place can lead to confusion or misunderstanding. We don’t want that.