Modifiers

Nouns and verbs provide straightforward information about the world, but language would be boring without lots of description. The last part of that sentence alone had two examples of descriptive language; the adjective boring and the modifier lots. There are different types of modifiers to add meaning to a sentence to make it more engaging, clear, or specific.

Modifiers Modifiers

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    Modifiers Meaning

    The word modify means to alter or change something. In grammar,

    A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that functions as an adjective or adverb to provide extra information about a particular word.

    An adverb changes the meaning of a verb, adjective, or another adverb by expressing a relation to place, time, cause, degree, or manner (e.g., heavily, then, there, really, and so on).

    On the other hand, an adjective changes the meaning of a noun or pronoun; its role is to add information about a person, place, or thing.

    The word that the modifier describes is called the head, or head-word. The head-word determines the character of the sentence or phrase, and any modifiers add information to explain the head better. You can determine if a word is the head by asking yourself, "Can the word be deleted and the phrase or sentence still make sense?" If the answer is "Yes," then it is not the head, but if the answer is "No," then it is likely the head.

    Modifier Examples

    An example of modifier is in the sentence "She bought a beautiful dress." In this example, the word "beautiful" is an adjective that modifies the noun "dress." It adds additional information or description to the noun, making the sentence more specific and vivid.

    Below are some more examples of different ways to use modifiers in a sentence. Each sentence discusses the fictional character Dr. John Watson from Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891) mysteries, and each example uses a different part of speech as a modifier.

    Sherlock Holmes's assistant, Watson, is also his dearest friend.

    The head noun in this sentence is the word assistant, which is modified by the complex noun phrase Sherlock Holmes's.

    Dr. John Watson is a loyal friend.

    In this sentence, the adjective loyal modifies the head noun friend.

    The doctor who helps solve mysteries is also Holmes's biographer.

    This sentence modifies the head noun, doctor, with the phrase who helps solve mysteries. The modifier phrase provides additional information to specify which doctor the sentence is about.

    Modifiers, Silhouette of Sherlock Holmes, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The modifier phrase above provides information about Sherlock's partner Watson.

    John Watson is the famous partner of Sherlock Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Two modifiers add information about the head-word partner in this sentence: the adjective, famous, and the participial phrase, created by Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Without the modifiers in these examples, readers would have much less information about the character Dr. Watson. As you can see, modifiers help people understand things in greater detail, and you can use them in many ways.

    List of Types of Modifiers

    A modifier can appear anywhere in a sentence and can also come either before or after the head. Modifiers that come before the head are called premodifiers, while modifiers that appear after the head are called postmodifiers.

    She casually discarded her essay in the wastebasket. (Premodifier)

    She discarded her essay in the wastebasket casually. (Postmodifier)

    Often, the modifier can be placed either before or after the word it describes. In these examples, the modifier casually, which is an adverb, can go before or after the verb discarded.

    A modifier at the beginning of a sentence must always modify the subject of the sentence.

    Remember, modifiers can act as either an adjective or an adverb. That essentially means they can add information about a noun (as an adjective) or a verb (as an adverb).

    List of Modifiers

    The list of modifiers are as follows:

    Modifier TypeExamples
    Adjectiveshappy, red, beautiful
    Adverbsquickly, loudly, very
    Comparative adjectivesbigger, faster, smarter
    Superlative adjectivesbiggest, fastest, smartest
    Adverbial phrasesin the morning, at the park, with care, often
    Infinitive phrasesto help, to learn
    Participle phrasesrunning water, eaten food
    Gerund phrasesrunning is good for health, eating out is fun
    Possessive adjectivesmy, your, their
    Demonstrative adjectivesthis, that, these, those
    Quantitative adjectivesfew, many, several, some
    Interrogative adjectiveswhich, what, whose

    Adjectives as Modifiers

    Adjectives offer information about nouns (a person, place, or thing). More specifically, they answer the questions: What kind? Which one? How many?

    What kind?

    • Dark (adjective) circles (noun)
    • Limited (adjective) edition (noun)
    • Enormous (adjective) book (noun)

    Which one?

    • Her (adjective) friend (noun)
    • That (adjective) classroom (noun)
    • Whose (adjective) music (noun)

    How many/ much?

    • Both (adjective) houses (noun)
    • Several (adjective) minutes (noun)
    • More (adjective) time (noun)

    Adverbs as Modifiers

    Adverbs answer the questions: How? When? Where? How much?

    How?

    Amy's finger drummed (verb) quickly (adverb) on the desk.

    When?

    Immediately (adverb) after the grades were posted, she ran (verb) to tell her mom.

    Where?

    The door opened (verb) backward. (adverb)

    How much?

    James flinched (verb) slightly. (adverb)

    You can identify many, although not all, adverbs by the -ly ending.

    Adjectives and adverbs are single words but can also operate as phrases or groups of words.

    The scary story

    • Scary (adjective) modifies story (noun) and answers the question, "What kind of story?"

    The very scary story

    • Very (adjective) modifies scary (adjective) and story (noun), and it answers the question, "To what degree is the story scary?"

    The phrase very scary describes the word story. There is no official limit to how many modifiers you can add to the description of a word. The sentence could have read, "The long, ridiculously scary story…" and would still be grammatically correct.

    Although there is no official limit to modifiers, you should be mindful of overloading the reader with too many modifiers. The phrase "Too much of a good thing" applies here and requires the use of judgment to know when enough is enough.

    Her use of English is almost always perfect

    • of English(adverb) modifies use(verb) and answers the question, "What kind?"
    • Perfect(adjective) modifies use(verb) and answers the question, "What kind?"
    • Always(adverb) modifies perfect(adverb) and answers the question, "When is it almost perfect?"
    • Almost(adverb) modifies always(adverb) and answers the question, "To what extent is her English use always perfect?"

    Because there are nearly limitless ways to describe something, modifiers can come in a variety of formats, but they tend to modify words in these same ways (as adjectives and adverbs).

    Modifier Identification Process

    Modifiers are relatively easy to identify in a sentence. One shortcut to identifying them is to take away every word that is not essential to its meaning; those are most likely modifiers.

    "James, the doctor's son, is really friendly."

    This sentence doesn't need the phrase "the doctor's son," which modifies the noun "James." There are two adjectives at the end of the sentence: "really" and "friendly." The word "really" modifies the word "friendly," so it is not needed, but the adjective "friendly" is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

    Modifiers should not be confused with complements, which are nouns or pronouns and are essential to the meaning of a sentence. For example, "teacher" is a complement in the sentence "Andrea is a teacher." The word "excellent" is a modifier in the sentence, "Andrea is an excellent teacher."

    Mistakes with Modifiers

    One of the biggest issues when using modifiers is making sure you place them so that they are clearly connected to the word they're describing. If a modifier is too far away from the thing it modifies, the reader could feasibly attach the modifier to something closer in the sentence, and then it is called a misplaced modifier. A modifier that is not clear in the same sentence as the head is a dangling modifier.

    Misplaced Modifier

    A misplaced modifier is one where it is not clear which object in the sentence the modifier is describing. It is always best to place modifiers as close as possible to the thing they're describing to avoid confusion. If your modifier is too far away, it is easy to misunderstand the meaning of the sentence.

    For example, which word would you connect to the modifying phrase (i.e., "they call Bumble Bee") in the sentence below?

    They bought a car for my sister called Bumble Bee.

    Is the sister called Bumble Bee, or is the car called Bumble Bee? It's difficult to tell because the modifier is closest to the noun sister, but it seems unlikely that her name is Bumble Bee.

    If you place the modifying phrase closer to the noun it's describing, it would make the meaning clear:

    They bought a car called Bumble Bee for my sister.

    Dangling Modifier

    A dangling modifier is one where the head (i.e., the thing that is modified) is not clearly stated within the sentence.

    Modifiers, A person climbing a rock, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A dangling modifier is one that is separated from the thing it is modifying and so it "dangles" alone.

    Having finished the assignment, some popcorn was popped.

    The phrase Having finished expresses action, but the doer of the action is not the subject of the following clause. In fact, the doer (i.e., the person who completed the action) is not even present in the sentence. This is a dangling modifier.

    Having finished the assignment, Benjamin popped some popcorn.

    This example is a complete sentence that makes sense, and it is clear who is popping the popcorn. "Having finished" states an action but does not explicitly state who did it. The doer is named in the next clause: Benjamin.

    If the clause or phrase that contains the modifier does not name the doer, then they must be the subject of the main clause that follows. This is so there is no confusion about who is completing the action.

    How to Fix Mistakes in Sentences With Modifiers

    Misplaced modifiers are typically straightforward to fix: simply place the modifier closer to the object it modifies.

    Dangling modifiers tend to be more difficult to correct, though. There are three strategies to help correct mistakes with dangling modifiers.

    1. Make the doer of the action the subject of the main clause that follows.

    INCORRECT: After reading the study, the article remained unconvincing.

    CORRECT: After reading the study, I remained unconvinced by the article.

    As mentioned above, the person or thing completing the action should be the subject of the main clause that comes after the one containing the modifier. The sentence will make sense, and it will reduce confusion about who the doer is.

    1. Name the doer of the action, and change the phrase that dangles into a complete introductory clause.

    INCORRECT: Without studying for the exam, it was difficult to know the answers.

    CORRECT: Because I didn't study for the exam, it was difficult to know the answers.

    Often, a dangling modifier appears because the writer assumes it is obvious who is completing the action. This assumption is what creates the dangling modifier. By simply stating the doer of the action and turning the phrase into a complete introductory clause, there will be no ambiguity about what happened and who did it.

    1. Combine the phrase and main clause.

    INCORRECT: To improve her results, the experiment was conducted again.

    CORRECT: She conducted the experiment again to improve her results.

    Who wanted to improve the results in this example? The first sentence sounds like the experiment was trying to improve its results. By combining the phrase and main clause, the meaning of the sentence is much clearer.

    Modifiers - Key Takeaways

    • A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that functions as an adjective or adverb to provide extra information about a particular noun (as an adjective) or a verb (as an adverb).
    • The word that the modifier describes is called the head.
    • Modifiers that come before the head are called premodifiers, and modifiers that appear after the head are called postmodifiers.
    • If a modifier is too far away from the thing it modifies and could feasibly be attached to something closer to it in the sentence, it is called a misplaced modifier.
    • A modifier that is not clear in the same sentence as the modifier is a dangling modifier.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Modifiers

    What are modifiers in writing?

    Modifiers are words or phrases that offer details, making sentences more engaging and enjoyable to read. 

    What is the difference between a modifier and a complement?

    The difference between a modifier and a complement is that a modifier gives additional and optional information, such as quietly in the following sentence: “They were talking quietly.” A complement is a word that completes a grammatical construction, such as lawyer in the following sentence: “He is a lawyer.”

    What does modify mean?

    The word modify means to alter or change something.

    What are modifiers in English grammar?

    In grammar, a modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that functions as an adjective or adverb to provide extra information about a particular word. 

    How do I identify modifiers?

    Because modifiers describe something by adding extra information about it, you can often find them right before or right after the thing they modify. Modifiers function as an adjective (i.e., describing a noun) or as an adverb (i.e., describing a verb), so look for the word, or word group, that is adding information to another part of the sentence. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Modifiers act as either _______ or ________.

    True or false...The following sentence contains a modifier:She ran quickly to catch up.

    True or false: Modifiers can only be adjectives or adverbs.

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