My impulse is that it's modifying the verb leads, and is thus an adverb; yet it seems that a case could also be made that it's exerting power on the phrase to extinguishment, a noun, which would make it ... what, exactly? an adjective? I'm confused.

Fame lights a fuse that leads only to extinguishment.

  • 8
    Do the test. Try replacing it with an adjective, then an adverb. "A fuse that leads beautiful to extinguishment" — nope. "A fuse that leads beautifully to extinguishment" — aye.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 18:24
  • I like it! Though "beautiful to extinguishment" has something poetic about it, the case is clear, grammatically--thanks for the tip...! Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 18:28
  • 1
    @RegDwightѬſ道 Yes, that works, but where beautifully modifies leads, only modifies to extinguishment. Commented Apr 14, 2012 at 1:45
  • Omitting the quotation marks in the title leads to a very compelling question!
    – Charles
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 21:05

3 Answers 3


In that sentence, only is an adverb, but to extinguishment isn't a noun. It's a prepositional phrase. It's quite common for adverbs to modify prepositions (e.g., completely under the bed). It's also quite common for adverbs to modify entire noun phrases, (e.g., even a Möbius strip, only the lonely). They rarely modify individual nouns inside noun phrases, though they do occasionally.

  • 1
    A correction: Adverbs don't modify prepositions, they modify prepositional phrases. Still +1 though.
    – Timtech
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 13:33

The sentence could also be written like this:

Fame lights a fuse that does not lead anywhere, except to extinguishment

But it is longer and maybe not as poetic sounding.

In the original wording, "only" emphasizes that there is nowhere else for fame to lead. Omitting "only" changes the meaning and with it, the sentence could be interpreted as

Fame lights a fuse that will likely lead to extinguishment, but there is some chance that it won't.

  • Thanks for this insight. That alternative is interesting and seems to emphasize even more the extinguishment; however, it sacrifices, as you note, a poetic sensibility and a certain economy. I'm glad to have confirmed my reading of the sentence with "only" as well; that it's not superfluous, but adds a certain constraint. Commented Apr 13, 2012 at 20:20

'Only' is an adverb modifying the verb by answering the question "leads where?" by narrowing the scope of where it may lead. 'To extinguishment' is a prepositional phrase also acting as an adverb modifying the verb by also answering the question "leads where?"

This adverb and adverbial phrase work together in harmony to bring about a more complex modification of the verb answering the same question "leads where?" than either of them could have accomplished alone.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.