Modifiers: they only want to help!

Modifiers: they only want to help!

A few days ago when I was browsing The Economist online (I know it sounds odd, bear with me!), an advertisement caught my attention:

Champagne only comes from Champagne.

It turns out that the ad promotes the proper labelling of wine so that only those wines coming from the Champagne region of France can be given the appellation “Champagne.” Fair enough. I can understand why they chose to phrase the ad in this way: it sounds mysterious, or at least somewhat cryptic, at first glance. Plus, it’s short. I’m sure that the copy writers behind this ad  calculated the word order and repetition for maximum impact. Whatever the intention of the ad gurus though, it got the portion of my brain that is hypersensitive to language going: “it only comes from Champagne in the sense that it’s grown there, in comparison to being fermented, aged, or imported from there?”

It appears to me that this ad, whether intentionally or not, has fallen victim to one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the English language: misplaced modifiers. In particular, the word “only” is a very thorny modifier capable of completely altering a sentence’s meaning when placed in front of the wrong word. My favourite example of this is one I culled from an old edition of Reader’s Digest when I was but a mere lass:

He told her that he loved her.

Now, take that sentence and see how the meaning changes when the word “only” is inserted into the text in varying locations.

  • Only he told her that he loved her.
  • He only told her that he loved her.
  • He told only her that he loved her.
  • He told her only that he loved her.
  • He told her that only he loved her.
  • He told her that he only loved her.
  • He told her that he loved only her.
  • He told her that he loved her only.

Obviously, all of these sentences are grammatically correct, but each sentence conveys an entirely different impression about the relationship between Him and Her. For example, let’s look at the two sentences where “only” precedes the word “he.” Although the “only he” word order is the same between the two sentences, the writer could be saying respectively that 1) both He and many others love Her, but that He was the only one brave enough to tell Her so, or 2) He the only one who loves Her, and no one else. How confusing if you happen to misread it!

Being sloppy with your modifiers can only lead to pain. Besides sounding odd by having such a distinctive word repeat itself so soon, the ad’s placement of “only” causes ambiguity: what if there are other things that happen to Champagne (the wine) when located in Champagne (the region)? Besides, what do they mean by Champagne “coming” from Champagne? Do they mean the growth and harvest of the vine? The pressing of the grape? The fermentation process? The bottling and corking process?

I can think of no way to rearrange this sentence without making it longer and uglier, so I applaud the writers behind this for keeping it short. But it still irks the hell out of me.

Update: I revised and republished this post on LinkedIn Pulse in 2015.