1. What is a Modifier?
To “modify” something is to change it or alter it. A modifier is an adjective or adverb; or adjective clause or adverb clause, that “modifies” other words in a sentence to make it more descriptive. Some modifiers affect nouns, while others affect other verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. They are optional words that you can usually add or remove without affecting a sentence’s grammar; but they make sentences much more interesting, detailed, and revealing. Without modifiers, every single sentence would be boring and share very little information!
2. Examples of Modifiers
A modifier changes our understanding of a word by adding details. Here are some examples of words that can be changed with modifiers:
Word Modified: Red
Bright red, fire engine red, red as dark as blood
Word Modified: Cold
Bitter cold, freezing cold, cold that chills you to the bone
Word Modified: Cat
Fluffy cat, orange cat, the cat I saw on the street
Word Modified: Idea
Bold idea, the world’s worst idea, the best idea I’ve ever had
As you see, the underlined modifiers make the words above more detailed or specific.
3. Types of Modifiers
There are two types of words that work as modifiers: adjectives and adverbs. Furthermore, phrases and clauses that serve as adjectives or adverbs can also be modifiers.
a. Adjectives as Modifiers
An adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun by making it more descriptive. Here’s a basic sentence:
The dog went to the county fair to eat popcorn.
Now, with modifiers:
The big, friendly dog went to the county fair to eat popcorn.
As you can see, both sentences are grammatically correct and have the same basic meaning. But, adjective modifiers like “big” and “friendly” make the second sentence more detailed.
b. Adverbs as Modifiers
An adverb modifies a verb, adverb or adjective by answering questions of where, when, why and how. Oftentimes, adverbs explain a degree to which something is done, answering the question “to what extent?” So, let’s take the same sentence from above and add adverb modifiers:
Yesterday the big, friendly dog went to the county fair only to eat popcorn.
The big, friendly dog frequently went to the county fair to eat popcorn.
The first sentence uses modifiers to share time (“yesterday”) and answer why? (“only”). In the second sentence, the modifier “frequently” lets us know how often the dog goes to the county fair, answering the question “to what extent?”
c. Phrases and Clauses as Modifiers
Modifiers are not only single words—they can be phrases and clauses too, so long as they act like adjectives or adverbs in a sentence. Remember, a clause needs a subject and verb. Here are some examples:
The dog ate popcorn until he had a stomachache.
Here, the clause “until he had a stomachache” serves is an adverb clause as a modifier answering how long the dog ate popcorn. Here’s another:
I saw the dog that eats popcorn.
This sentence uses the adjective clause “that eats popcorn” as a modifier to describe the dog.
Now, let’s try phrases as modifiers. Remember, a phrase is a group of related words that don’t include a subject and a verb.
The dog ate popcorn from the fair.
The dog ran as fast as the wind.
The phrases “popcorn from the fair” and “as fast as the wind” work as modifiers to describe what the dog ate and how fast he could run.
4. How to Avoid Mistakes with Modifiers
Truthfully, mistakes with modifiers are pretty common, and most people probably don’t realize when they do it!
As a rule, the modifier should be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies. That’s to avoid confusion about which word is being modified. Otherwise, your sentence can have a misplaced or dangling modifier. Dangling and misplaced modifiers can make your sentence ambiguous—in other words, the meaning could be unclear. Let’s learn how to avoid them.
a. Misplaced Modifier
A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is (mis)placed next to the wrong subject or noun in a sentence. As a result, it’s unclear which word the modifier is supposed to be modifying. It happens with all types of modifiers. Here’s an example of a misplaced adjective:
Fluffy and hungry, the man gave the dog popcorn. INCORRECT
Here, the placement of the modifiers makes it sound like the man is fluffy and hungry! Really, we want to say that the dog is fluffy and hungry. Remember, the modifier needs to be as close as possible to the thing it is modifying. So, let’s make it clear:
The man gave the fluffy and hungry dog popcorn. CORRECT
The man gave popcorn to the fluffy and hungry dog. CORRECT
Here’s another example:
We have a dog that eats popcorn named Sparky. INCORRECT
In meaning of the first sentence is that the dog eats popcorn named Sparky—the modifier “named Sparky” is misplaced. The intended meaning is that the dog’s name is Sparky and he eats popcorn. So, let’s move the modifier closer to the subject it is supposed to modify:
We have a dog named Sparky that eats popcorn. CORRECT
Now, here’s what can happen with a misplaced adverb:
- The dog only cooked the popcorn. All he did was cook the popcorn.
- The dog cooked only the popcorn. The only thing he cooked was popcorn.
Though both of these sentences are grammatically correct, it is unclear what the word “only” is modifying—that makes the sentence ambiguous. This is a really common mistake. If you want the meaning of Sentence 1, then the modifier is misplaced in Sentence 2, and vice versa. These revised sentences make the meaning clearer:
- The dog only cooked the popcorn; he didn’t eat it.
- The dog cooked only the popcorn; he didn’t make anything else.
b. Dangling Modifier
A dangling modifier is a modifier that can be mistakenly linked to the wrong word. Usually the subject is missing, so the modifier modifies an object instead. Here are some examples:
While running towards the fair, the popcorn smelled delicious.
The popcorn smelled delicious while running towards the fair.
Here, the subject that is supposed to be modified is missing—so, it is left “dangling” from the sentence with nothing to connect to. Instead, we link the modifier with the only object in the sentence (“popcorn”), so it seems like the popcorn is running towards the fair. Let’s correct them:
While the dog was running towards the fair, the popcorn smelled delicious.
The popcorn smelled delicious while the dog was running towards the fair.
Without “the dog”, the modifier is left “dangling” because it needs a proper subject to modify.