Modifiers

Modifiers can take a sentence from zero to hero: they describe, qualify, or limit the meaning of another word.

Take a look at this puny little sentence; it's a total zero.

Brad broke his guitar.

Yawn. Go away, Brad. No one cares about you and your broken guitar.

But check out what a bunch of carefully placed modifiers can do:

At the end of the talent show, Brad, who only started taking music lessons last month, triumphantly broke his guitar against the drum kit, celebrating his killer, 14-minute solo with a rock star flourish, a sight that brought a tear to his proud mother's eyes and sent the girls in the front row into screaming hysterics.

Just like that, the sentence goes from Clark Kent to Superman. From Daenerys Targaryen to Mother of Dragons. From Peter Parker to Spiderman. From boring the readers to captivating them.

No, seriously: that's also a superpower. The pen is not only mightier than the sword; it's also mightier than a man of steel, a trio of flying lizards, or some truly suspect sticky finger-web.

And just like everybody's favorite blue mutant, Mystique (sorry, Beast), modifiers can take many forms: a modifier can be an adjective, an adverb, or even a phrase or clause that functions as an adjective or adverb. Yeah, it can get messy.

You could say that modifiers are defined by what the modify: Adverbs modify verbs, other adverbs, and adjectives. Adjectives modify nouns. So if it looks like a noun is modifying another noun, that first noun is probably an adjective. Because nouns aren't modifiers. Just sayin'.

Modifiers bring energy to your writing by providing additional details about what's being discussed. They make your descriptions more accurate and engaging, and they help hold the reader's attention.

Without modifiers, the average sentence is about as fun as watching paint dry.

 

Examples

"Kelly wore that red dress confidently."

A red dress is a weird choice for a funeral, but Kelly's always marched to the beat of her own fashion drum. In this example, we have two modifiers: red is an adjective that describes the color of the dress, and confidently is an adverb that describes how Kelly rocked the frock.

"I'm addicted to the taste of mint chocolate chip ice cream."

You're not alone. Here, we have an example of a phrase that acts as a modifier. The prepositional phrase of mint chocolate chip ice cream qualifies the word taste.

"The boy who was attacked by ninjas was hospitalized."

He never saw them coming. Hopefully you saw the modifier in this sentence. For starters, it's underlined. Here's why: the clause who was attacked by ninjas explains which boy was hospitalized… after taking several stealthy roundhouse kicks to the face.

 

Common mistakes

Modifiers are great, but you can't just throw them into a sentence all willy-nilly. In fact, modifiers that aren't correctly placed can make a sentence really confusing. There are two types of modifier mistakes you should avoid like the plague.

These evil modifiers go by the blood-chilling names of: misplaced modifiers (shudder!) and dangling modifiers (gasp!).

 

Misplaced modifiers don't describe or explain the words the writer intended them to—instead, they accidentally describe or explain something else.

A misplaced modifier often appears to modify the wrong word or can leave the reader totally confused as to which word it actually modifies. Fortunately, most issues with misplaced modifiers can be fixed in a snap simply by moving the word being modified closer to the modifier.

Example

Pam adopted a puppy from an animal shelter named Morpheus.

The misplaced modifier in this sentence seems to suggest that the animal shelter was named Morpheus...which is obviously not what was meant by this sentence. (And we would know; we wrote it.) The modifier named Morpheus should be placed next to what it modifies: a puppy.

This sentence should be something like:

Pam adopted a puppy named Morpheus from an animal shelter.

There we go.

Dangling modifiers are just as gross and ridiculous as they sound. Dangling… just… ew.

You know you have a serious problem when the person or thing you are trying to modify isn't even in your sentence. That's like milk duds without popcorn. Or something.

Dangling modifiers do not clearly describe or explain any part of the sentence. They come about when you take for granted that the reader will understand exactly what you are talking about. The sentence may imply the subject of your modifying word or clause, but you still need to state it in the passage.

There are two common ways to revise dangling modifiers, and both are virtually painless:

Option #1:

Add a word or words that the modifier clearly describes. Place the new material just after the modifier, and rearrange other parts of the sentence as necessary.

Like so:

Enjoying the crisp fall breeze, the leaves floated to the ground in swirls of orange and gold.

and

Enjoying the crisp fall breeze, Janet watched the leaves float to the ground in swirls of orange and gold.

Wow, that is some poetic description in the first sentence. And if it were a poem, there might not be a grammatical error (emphasis on "might.") The poet might be personifying the leaves by saying that they—yup, the leaves—are enjoying the crisp fall breeze.

But it isn't a poem, so what we have there is dangling modifier. The first part of the sentence, enjoying the crisp fall breeze, is modifying a subject who isn't present—presumably someone who's watching those beautiful leaves fall while enjoying the breeze. The second sentence is correct because we've added that subject, Janet, who loves autumn leaves and pumpkin spice lattes. Janet, you're so basic.

Option #2:

Change the dangling modifier to a dependent clause.

While playing Donkey Kong Country, the pizza burned.

and

While Jeremy was playing Donkey Kong Country, the pizza burned.

There is nothing worse than wasted pizza. Nothing. Except for a dangling modifier… and we have one in the first sentence. It suggests that the pizza was playing video games. And while pizza may hold a special place in our hearts, it definitely can't hold a Wiimote.

In the second sentence, we've fixed the dangling modifier by adding Jeremy was, which changes the modifier to a dependent clause. Now it's clear that Jeremy is a Grade-A pizza-waster who should be locked up for crimes against pepperoni.