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A squinting modifier is an ambiguous modifier (commonly an adverb, such as only) that appears to qualify the words both before and after it. Also called a two-way modifier or squinting construction.
A squinting modifier can usually be corrected by changing its position in the sentence.
Examples and Observations
Here are some examples of a squinting modifier:
- What you hear often you will believe.
- Instructors who cancel classes rarely are reprimanded.
- We agreed at our first meeting to implement the new procedures.
- The governor threatened after his reelection to increase motor vehicle license fees.
- I told Merdine when the game was over I would drive her to the bingo hall.
- Here are some things you might not know we'd like to share.
- "We can't accept completely abstract logic is ambiguous. The adverb completely could modify either the verb preceding it or the adjective following it. Such a modifier is sometimes called a squinting modifier--it seems to look in two directions at once. Squinting modifiers can be hard to find when we're looking over what we've written, because we ourselves, of course, know what we mean, and the grammar is not incorrect, just ambiguous. The example could be made unambiguous by making it either We can't completely accept abstract logic or We can't accept logic that is completely abstract. For the second meaning, we have to make the sentence more complicated and use a relative clause, because in the original sentence there is no position for completely that will make it unambiguously the modifier of abstract."
(Edward D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English. Simon & Schuster, 1991)
The Placement of Only
- I am only buying organic apples these days.
- The children only know how to imitate vampires and zombies.
- "Theoretically at least, the placement of only affects the meaning of a sentence… But in practice I only want one, I want one only, and I want only one all have the same meaning, despite differences in rhythm and emphasis. Although you may have learned that only should always directly precede the word it modifies, most contemporary writers on style qualify that rule, pointing out that sentences like these sound stilted and unnatural:
Maybe millions of people go by, but I have eyes for only you.
And where will it all end only God Knows.
In each of the examples, you expect to find only where the adverb usually goes, before the verb, and the unnatural placement impedes the reading… When only falls into its idiomatic place without causing ambiguity, let it stand.
"But 'without causing ambiguity' is an important qualification. You can sometimes muddle a sentence by putting only before the verb instead of before the word it modifies. If, for example, you write that The committee only seemed interested in their proposal, readers won't necessarily understand 'seemed interested only in their proposal.' Perhaps the committee was only feigning interest… So take care with your onlys." (Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
Only a Handbook Problem?
"The squinting modifier resides chiefly in college-level handbooks. The term is used as an adverb or phrase that stands between two sentence elements and can be taken to modify either what precedes or what follows.
"Let us look at an example sent to us from a correspondent in Korea:
The store that had a big sale recently went bankrupt.
Here recently can be interpreted as modifying either the preceding or following part. But the content of the sentence suggests it is a learner's sentence; a native speaker would not be likely to convey the information in such a flat and unspecific manner.
"The examples of the squinting modifier shown in college handbooks are comparable to the one we have used here, and they seem pretty unlikely to occur in actual writing." (Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, 2002)