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Avoiding Common Mistakes with Adjectives and Adverbs

Some English adjectives and adverbs, for example, even, almost, only, just, nearly are very flexible and can be placed almost anywhere in a sentences. But it is very easy to make mistakes with these adverbs and adjectives. Where you place them can impact the meaning of your sentence.

Standardized tests often include sentences misusing these adjectives and adverbs. Keep your eyes open and double-check every sentence with even, almost, only, just, and nearly.

Placing even in a sentence

Even is one of the sneaky modifiers that can land any place in a sentence and change the meaning of what you’re saying. Take a look at this example:

It’s two hours before the grand opening of the school show. Lulu and George have been rehearsing for weeks. They know all the dances, and Lulu has only one faint bruise left from George’s tricky elbow maneuver. Suddenly, George’s evil twin Lester, mad with jealousy, “accidentally” places his foot in George’s path. George is down! His ankle is sprained! What will happen to the show?
  • Possibility 1: Lulu shouts, “We can still go on! Even Lester knows the dances.”

  • Possibility 2: Lulu shouts, “We can still go on! Lester even knows the dances.”

  • Possibility 3: Lulu shouts, “We can still go on! Lester knows even the dances.”

What’s going on here? These three statements look almost the same, but they aren’t. Here’s what each one means:

  • Possibility 1: Lulu surveys the fifteen boys gathered around George. She knows that any one of them could step in at a moment’s notice. After all, the dances are very easy. Even Lester, the clumsiest boy in the class, knows the dances. If even Lester can perform the role, it will be a piece of cake for everyone else.

  • Possibility 2: Lulu surveys the fifteen boys gathered around George. It doesn’t look good. Most of them would be willing, but they’ve been busy learning other parts. There’s no time to teach them George’s role. Then she spies Lester. With a gasp, she realizes that Lester has been watching George every minute of rehearsal. Although the curtain will go up very soon, the show can still be saved. Lester doesn’t have to practice; he doesn’t have to learn something new. Lester even knows the dances.

  • Possibility 3: The whole group looks at Lester almost as soon as George hits the floor. Yes, Lester knows the words. He’s been reciting George’s lines for weeks now, helping George learn the part. Yes, Lester can sing; everyone’s heard him. But what about the dances? There’s no time to teach him. Just then, Lester begins to twirl around the stage. Lulu sighs with relief. Lester knows even the dances. The show will go on!

So here’s the rule. Put even at the beginning of the comparison implied in the sentence.

Placing almost and nearly in a sentence

Almost and nearly are tricky descriptions. Here’s an example:

Last night Lulu wrote for almost (or nearly) an hour and then went rollerblading.
Last night Lulu almost (or nearly) wrote for an hour and then went rollerblading.

In the first sentence, Lulu wrote for 55 minutes and then stopped. In the second sentence, Lulu intended to write, but every time she sat down at the computer, she remembered that she hadn’t watered the plants, called her best friend Lola, made a sandwich, and so forth. After an hour of wasted time and without one word on the screen, she grabbed her rollerblades and left.

Almost and nearly begin the comparison. Lulu almost wrote (or nearly wrote), but she didn’t. Or Lulu wrote for almost an hour (or nearly an hour), but not for a whole hour.

Placing only and just in a sentence

If only the word only were simpler to understand! If everyone thought about the word just for just a minute. Like the other tricky words in this section, only and just change the meaning of the sentence every time their positions are altered. Here are examples of only and just in action:

Only (or just) Lex went to Iceland. (No one else went.)
Lex only went to Iceland. (He didn’t do anything else.)
Lex just went to Iceland. (The ink on his passport is still wet. Just may mean recently.)
Lex went only (or just) to Iceland. (He skipped Antarctica.)

Many people place only in front of a verb and assume that it applies to another idea in the sentence. A popular t-shirts slogans says, “My dad went to NYC and only bought me a lousy t-shirt.” The only should be in front of a lousy t-shirt because the sentence implies that Dad should have bought more — the Empire State Building, perhaps. The original wording describes a terrible trip: zoom in from the airport, buy a t-shirt, and zoom back home.

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