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Modifiers

Modifiers are words or group of words that qualify or describe other words in a sentence. A modifier can be a single word, a phrase, or a clause.

 Examples:

Modifiers


Read the sentences below to get an idea on modifiers. The modifiers are underlined, and the words that each modifier describes are italicized.

1. The famous architect lived in an old-fashioned house.
2. Robert Frost was born in San Francisco.
3. The duck waddled warily, beginning to suspect danger.
4. Steve became furious when he learned the truth.

 

Types of Modifiers

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Modifiers bring sentences to life by providing vivid description about things and actions. Regardless of length or form (words, phrases, or clauses), modifiers fall into two categories. They function as adjective if they describe people, places, things, or ideas; they function as adverb if they describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

1. Adjectives:

You might be aware of what adjectives are.  The words that modify nouns and pronouns are called adjectives. An adjective modifies a word by telling
  • What kind? Example: big, easy, exciting…
  • Which one? Example: that, last, middle …
  • How much/many? Example: less, many…
Adjective as Modifier:

An adjective may come after or before the word it modifies.

The conference on improving water resources was attended by several activists.

Here,

several = adjective
activists = noun

Adjective Phrase as Modifier:

An adjective phrase is a prepositional phrase that modifies a noun or a pronoun.

Have you read the novel by Margaret Atwood?

Here,

novel = noun
margaret atwood = adjective phrase

In the sentence above, the adjective phrase ‘by Margaret Atwood’ answers the question ‘which one.’ It modifies the noun ‘novel.’

Adjective Clause as Modifier:

An adjective clause is a dependent clause that modifies a noun or a pronoun. An adjective clause begins with the relative pronouns such as who, whom, whose, that, and which.

We must find a person who will help to restore consumer confidence.

Here,

person = noun
who will help to restore consumer confidence = adjective phrase

The adjective clause ‘who will help to restore consumer confidence’ modifies the noun ‘person’ and gives information on ‘what kind of person.’

2. Adverbs:

An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb by making its meaning more specific. An adverb tells when, where, why, how, or to what extent the action occurs.

Adverb Modifying Verb:

I voluntarily offered help to an old man to cross the road.

Here,

voluntarily = adverb
offered = verb

In this sentence, the adverb ‘voluntarily’ modifies the verb ‘offered,’ telling how the action is done.

Adverb Modifying Adjective:

We would be extremely grateful if you could have a word with Mark.

Here,

extremely = adverb
grateful = adjective

The adverb ‘extremely’ modifies the adjective ‘grateful,’ telling to what extent.

Adverb Modifying Another Adverb:

Poe fell and hurt his leg rather badly.

Here,

rather = adverb
badly = adverb

The adverb ‘rather’ modifies another adverb ‘badly,’ which modifies the verb ‘hurt.’

Adverb Phrase as Modifier:

An adverb phrase is a prepositional phrase that modifies a verb, an adjective, or an adverb.

When I was at the podium, I was surprised to see all my friends seated in the front row.

Here,

seated = verb
in the front row = prep.phrase(adverb)

In this sentence, the prepositional phrase ‘in the front row’ functions as an adverb modifying the verb ‘seated.’

Adverb Clause as Modifier:

An adverb clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a verb, an adjective, or an adverb in the main clause. Adverb clauses are introduced by subordinating conjunctions such as after, although, as, because, before, if, since, than, though, unless, until, when, and where.

When Robert Frost was about eleven years old, his father died.

Here,

when robert frost was about eleven years old = adverb clause
died = verb

The adverb clause modifies the verb ‘died,’ telling when Frost’s father died.

Errors in Placement of Modifiers

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The position of a modifier-a word or phrase that describes something-determines what it modifies. If a modifier is misplaced, the sentence can be confusing or unintentionally funny.

Look at this example.

Sliding swiftly across the sidewalk, a tree smashed into Tiffany.
  • Was the tree sliding swiftly? No, Tiffany should be the one doing the sliding, not the tree.
  • If it is Tiffany, then the modifying phrase should be placed right before or right after his name. The easiest way to do this is to restructure the sentence.
Placement of Modifiers
  • In this sentence, the modifying phrase is placed closely to the word ‘Tiffany’ it describes. Now the sentence means what the writer intended to say.

Carefully chosen and well-placed modifiers give your writing flavor, variety, and a smooth flow. However, when the writer does not place the modifier in the appropriate position, the modifier ends up modifying a different word in the sentence that does not communicate the meaning the writer wanted to express. This happens because a modifier tends to modify what is close to. So, place the modifying words, phrases, and clauses as close as possible to the words they modify.

Errors of Modifiers

A modifier error occurs in three cases:
  • A modifier appears to modify a wrong phrase – Misplaced Modifier
  • A modifier modifying more than one word or phrase – Squinting Modifier
  • A modifier failed logically to modify any word when the intended referent is missing – Dangling Modifier
Let us discuss each type in detail with examples. To begin let us see what misplaced modifiers are.

Misplaced Modifier:

A misplaced modifier is one that is not correctly placed in the sentence and, therefore, describes the wrong word or words.

Example:

Misplaced Modifier


Who had laid an egg weighing three pounds, the scientist or the ostrich?

It is unclear whether the phrase “having laid an egg weighing three pounds” describes the scientist or the ostrich. The writer certainly did not mean to say that the scientist laid an egg, yet this is the message conveyed in the sentence above.

To correct this problem, let’s move the modifying phrase closer to the word it describes.

Misplaced Modifier Example


Let us work on some more examples.

In the following examples, the modifiers (underlined) modify the word it is closest to (highlighted in blue). Also, the sentences are rewritten so that the modifier is next to the word it modifies.

Example 1:

Misplaced: The stranger was described as a four foot- short man with grey hair, green eyes, and a mustache weighing 150 pounds. (Is the mustache weighing 150 pounds?)

Correct: The stranger was described as a four foot- short man weighing 150 pounds with grey hair, green eyes, and a mustache.

Example 2:

Misplaced: The bread is as hard as the rock of Gibraltar that Carla baked yesterday. (Did Carla bake the rock of Gibraltar?)

Correct: The bread that Carla baked yesterday is as hard as the rock of Gibraltar.

Example 3:

Misplaced: I want to buy a car from a sales associate with snow tires. (Does the sales associate have snow tires?)

Correct: I want to buy a car with snow tires from a sales associate.

Dangling Modifier:

A dangling modifier is one that is meant to modify a word or phrase, but that word or phrase is not present in the sentence. Such a modifier “dangles,” attaching itself to nothing. Dangling modifiers often appear at the beginnings of sentences and may seem to modify the noun or pronoun that immediately follows—but they don’t. We could see such situation when we begin a sentence with participial phrases.

Look at this example.

Cleverly responding to each new threat, the plan is successful.
What does this sentence suggest?
  • Literally, the sentence means that the plan was cleverly responding to each new threat. Since plan cannot respond to the threat, the phrase “cleverly responding to each new threat” cannot be the modifier of plan. Therefore, this phrase is a dangling modifier.
  • The sentence contains no word for the modifier to logically modify. To fix the problem, rewrite the sentence to include a noun or pronoun for the modifier to modify. 
Cleverly responding to each new threat, Fernando makes the plan successful.
Among the constructions most likely to cause dangling modifiers are participial phrases, prepositional phrases, and infinitive phrases.

Let’s discuss this in detail with examples.

Example 1:

Working around the clock, the airport runway was repaired in less than a week.

Here,

Working around the clock = Participial phrase

Did the airport runway work around the clock?

No. Presumably, it is the worker who worked around the clock and repaired the airport runway. The noun to be modified is missing in this sentence. Hence the underlined participial phrase becomes a dangling modifier. This faulty sentence could be corrected by adding a suitable subject to the main clause.

Working around the clock, the workers repaired the airport runway in less than a week.

Here,

the workers = subject

Example 2:

At the age of eight, my family went on a trip to Niagara Falls.

Here,

At the age of eight = Prepositional phrase

Does the underlined phrase actually modify the word next to it? Not too likely. Without the appropriate word to modify, the prepositional phrase dangles in mid way. Hence the intended meaning is obscured in this sentence. We can fix this sentence by changing the prepositional phrase into a dependent clause.

When i was eight, my family went on a trip to Niagara Falls. 

Here,

When i was eight = Dependent clause

Example 3:

To win the task, a great effort was made.

Here,

To win the task = Infinitive phrase

Who wanted to win the task?

Obviously, it should be the writer and not the effort. Since the intended subject ‘I’ is missing, the infinitive phrase dangles. To revise this sentence, add the subject to the main clause.

To win the task, I made a great effort.

Here,

To win the task = subject

Squinting Modifier:

A very complicated error in modifier placement is ‘squinting modifier.’ Unlike the other two kinds of problems, this type of error occurs as a result of the improper positioning of adverbs in a sentence. One might have argued that the adverbs have the ability to pop up anywhere in a sentence; but actually the results may be hilarious. The function of adverb may be fine with regards to the structure, but the meaning of the sentence may become obscure or ambiguous. Let me show you an illustration for that.

Students who skip classes often score poor grades.

Here,

often = Adverb

Does the sentence mean that students who frequently skip classes score poor grades? Or that it was students who skip classes will score poor grades frequently?
  • We can’t tell which part of the sentence the word ‘often’ is supposed to modify.
  • To fix this confusion, reposition the adverb so that it clearly modifies one word or phrase only.
Take a look at these revisions. Read carefully and find out what each sentence intends to convey.

Sentence 1: Students who often skip classes score poor grades. (Students skipping classes frequently will score poor grades.)

Sentence 2: Students who skip classes score poor grades often. (Students skipping classes will always score poor grades.)

Did you get the difference in the meaning of each sentence? Now you could definitely understand how adverbs change the meaning of your meaning if you put them in the wrong spot. This is a typical example for squinting modifiers.
 
A squinting modifier is also sometimes called two-way modifier. This modifier is positioned between two words or phrases and could modifier either one. This causes confusion because the reader does not know what word(s) is being modified.

Let’s read some more sentences.

Speaking to the professor forcefully made the point.

Here,

forcefully = Adverb

  • The problem with the sentence above is that ‘forcefully’ could describe either speaking or made. To clarify the meaning, you need to move forcefully closer to the one of those words.
  • To fix this confusion, reposition the adverb so that it clearly modifies one word or phrase only. 
Speaking forcefully to the professor made the point. 

Speaking to the professor made the point forcefully.

Placing the modifiers incorrectly in a sentence will definitely result in ambiguity and fail in conveying the correct meaning.

Correcting Modifier Errors

While sentences may be grammatically correct, they may be poorly structured that make their meaning vague and ambiguous. One of the problems involving sentence structure is the placement of modifiers. Such error results when there is some ambiguity in the meaning of a sentence. Conquering this error will help to make your writing clear and readable. There are certain rules, which need to be observed in the placement of the modifiers. This learning object deals with these rules for avoiding the most common modification errors.

Rule 1:

Place the modifiers as close as possible to the word they modify. Special care needs to be taken while using the adjectival and adverbial phrases, and clauses starting with who, whose, that, or which.

Let’s see how to fix sentences where a phrase is out of place.

Examples:

Misplaced: We bought gas at a nearby store that costs $\$$5 a gallon. (Store costs $\$$5 a gallon?)

Correct: We bought gas that costs $\$$5 a gallon at a nearby store.

Misplaced: Jarrod became an expert in film noir watching old movies. (Did film noir watch old movies?)

Correct: Watching old movies, Jarrod became an expert in film noir.

Misplaced: The girl from Chicago in the writing lab left her wallet. (Is Chicago in the writing lab?)

Correct: The girl from Chicago left her wallet in the writing lab.

Limiting adverbs such as only, just, nearly, barely, almost are often used improperly in a sentence.  Be sure they precede the words they modify.

Example:

Misplaced: Charlotte almost read the entire book.

In the sentence above ‘almost’ modifies read. If Charlotte almost read the book, it means that she may or may not have read the book. But that is not the intended meaning. The writer actually wanted to convey that Charlotte finished reading almost the entire book. Read the revision below.

Correct: Charlotte read almost the entire book.

Let’s look at more examples.

Misplaced: He just ate a few slices of bread. (He ate the bread just now.)

Correct: He ate just a few slices of bread. (He ate only a few slices.)

Misplaced: I only gave $\$$50 for the lot. (No one else gave it.)

Correct: I gave only $\$$50 for the lot. (I gave nothing else expect $\$$50.)

Rule 2:

In a sentence that contains no word for the modifier to logically modify, include a noun or pronoun right after the opening modifier or by adding the noun being modified to the opening modifier. An example will guide you better.

Dangling: While watching TV, the macaroni burned in the saucepan.
Was the macaroni watching TV? The underlined modifier dangles in mid-air without words to modify. To correct the problem, the person or thing being modified must be add.

Correct: While I was watching TV, the macaroni burned in the saucepan. (Pronoun added to the opening modifier.)
Here are a few more examples.

Dangling: To pacify the irate crowd, the speech was designed. (The speech cannot pacify, but a person can.)

Correct: To pacify the irate crowd, Melissa designed the speech. (Noun included right after the opening modifier.)

Dangling: Exhausted by the trip, it was hard to get up and go to work. (Who was exhausted?)

Correct: Exhausted by the trip, Tiffany found it hard to get up and go to work. (Noun included right after the opening modifier.)

Rule 3: 

If a modifier appears to quality the words before and after it, change its position in the sentence.

Examples:

Squinting: Students who seek coaching classes often can get through SAT. (Is ‘often’ modifying seek or get through?)

Squinting: The minister charged with neglecting his duty recently went to court. (Was he charged recent or did he go to court recently? Several corrections are possible.)

Correct: The minister recently charged with neglecting his duty went to court.
The minister charged with neglecting his duty went to court recently.

While modifiers add description, vary sentence structure, emphasize details and increase readability; use of too many modifiers will confuse your readers, making the sentence wordy and ineffective. Let’s see how adding many modifiers detracts from the effect they are meant to have.

Avoid too many Modifiers:

One of the major threats to the beauty of the composition is using too many adjectives in a sentence. Always remember too many adjectives make your writing inconsequential. Let me give you an example.

Consider these two sentences and share your opinion on the same.

a) The linen, embroidered, bright colored tablecloth was covered with sticky maple syrup, with globs of hot oatmeal, with dots of buttery bread crumbs, with patches of yellowy egg yolk, and bloody-looking tomato ketchup.

b) The beautiful tablecloth was then a mess; its embroidery is spoiled by the trapped syrup, oatmeal, egg, crumbs and tomato ketchup. 

Now find out which sentence seems simpler and more readable? Obviously you will choose the second one. It is because it contains only a few adjectives like beautiful, tomato.

Can you guess the problem with the first sentence? Too many adjectives in the first sentence force the readers to stop and visualize the tablecloth with added new elements. 

Thus by relying on more modifiers, instead of specific nouns and verbs, the composition definitely becomes fluffy and trivial. But this doesn’t mean that we are supposed to leave adjectives or adverbs, but rather it is advisable to use them sparingly to give the required impact to a sentence.

The Economics of Diction – using specific nouns or verbs:

If you come across too many adjectives and adverbs in your writing, replace them with strong nouns and verbs. Consider these two sentences:

1. The young woman, who was at some indeterminate point in her teenage years, sported through her hair a streak of pink dye that could be considered extremely garish.

2. The teenager sported a streak of shocking-pink dye in her hair.

The examples above give enough proof that nouns and verbs carefully chosen make us visualize.
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