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Grammar: Modifiers

Modifier Basics

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that modifies—that is, gives information about—another word in the same sentence. For example, in the following sentence, the word burger is modified by the word vegetarian:

Example: I'm going to the Saturn Café for a vegetarian burger.
  • The modifier vegetarian gives extra information about what kind of burger it is.

A modifier can be an adjective (a word that modifies a noun, like burger), but it can also be an adverb (a word that modifies a verb):

Example: The student carefully proofread her draft.
  • The adverb carefully is the modifier in this example—it modifies the verb proofread, giving important details about how the proofreading was conducted.

A modifier can even be a phrase or clause, as in the following example:

Example: She studied in the library.
  • Here, the phrase in the library gives us extra information about the verb, studied.

 

Modifiers can also be used for sentence variety. See this page on varying sentence structure for more information.

Misplaced Modifiers

When a modifier is ambiguously or illogically modifying a word, we consider it a misplaced modifier. See APA 3.21 for more explanation and examples.

Example: Dolger discovered an ancient Mayan civilization using astronavigation.
  • The modifier, using astronavigation, is unclear in this sentence. Does it modify Dolger or civilization? A reader will wonder, "Was Dolger using astronavigation? Or was the civilization he discovered using astronavigation?"
Revision 1: Using astronavigation, Dolger discovered an ancient Mayan civilization.
  • This modifier placement makes it clear that Dolger is the one using astronavigation.
Revision 2: Dolger discovered an ancient Mayan civilization that used astronavigation.
  • This modifier placement makes it clear that the civilization used astronavigation.

Dangling Modifiers

When a modifier is not modifying a specific word, we call it a dangling modifier. See APA 3.21 for more explanation and examples.

Example: After consulting a selection of current publications, research in this area has been sparse.
  • In this example, it is not clear who is consulting the selection of current publications. In other words, there is no referent in the sentence.
Revision 1: After consulting a selection of current publications, I determined that the research in this area has been sparse.
  • Now the subject in the sentence “I” matches the modifier “after consulting a selection of current publications.”
Revision 2: According to the selection of current publications, research in this area has been sparse.
  • Now the modifier “according to the selection of current publications” matches the subject “research.”

Knowledge Check: Modifiers