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Modifiers and how to use them

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A modifier qualifies, limits, enhances, or in some way alters the meaning of a word or other element in a sentence. Modifiers may be single words, phrases, or clauses.

Single-word modifiers are either adjectives or adverbs. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, e.g., His reddened eyes were hidden by mirrored sunglasses. Adverbs modify verbs, other adverbs, and whole word groups, e.g., She spoke extremely softly in a flat monotone. (The adverbs modify the verb spoke.)

Only adverbs should be used to modify verbs, e.g., She spoke seriously. However, a modifier coming after a verb should be an adjective if it describes the subject, e.g., The students felt bad about their cheating. (The adjective bad describes the students’ emotional state, not the action of feeling.)

Misplaced modifiersLimiting modifiersDangling modifiersSplit infinitives

Misplaced modifiers

A misplaced modifier is one that falls in the wrong place in a sentence, causing confusion or awkwardness. Correct placement is necessary to convey clear meaning.

Confusing: He served steak to the men on paper plates. (Suggests the men are on the plates.)

Revised:   He served the men steaks on paper plates.

Limiting modifiers

Limiting modifiers include only, almost, even, exactly, hardly, just, merely, nearly, and simply. They should fall immediately before the word or word group they modify, according to meaning. They should appear in front of a verb only if they modify the verb (e.g., I could hardly move.). If they limit the meaning of another word in the sentence, they should appear in front of that word.

     Unclear: They only saw each other during meals.

     Revised: They saw each other only during meals. (Meals are the only time they see each other.)

     Revised: They saw only each other during meals. (They do not see anyone else during meals, even if there are others present.)

Not is also frequently misplaced, suggesting a meaning the writer did not intend.

Unclear: Even after the suffrage movement, all women did not vote. (Suggests no women voted.)

Revised: Even after the suffrage movement, not all women voted. (Some, but not all, voted.)

Dangling modifiers

Dangling modifiers are word groups that do not logically modify anything in a sentence, e.g., Passing the building, the vandalism became visible.

This modifier (Passing the building) does not name an actor, so readers expect it is the same as the subject of the following clause (vandalism). Although vandalism cannot perform the action of passing a building, that meaning is suggested. The writer has left out the word that the modifier is intended to modify, so the modifier is unconnected to the rest of the sentence — it “dangles.”

Revise dangling modifiers by using the following strategies:

  1. Rewrite the dangling modifier as a complete clause with its own stated subject or verb (naming the actor in the modifier).

Revised: As we passed the building, the vandalism became visible.

  1. Change the subject of the sentence to a word the modifier properly describes (naming the actor in the subject).

Dangling: Trying to understand the causes, vandalism has been extensively studied.

Revised: Trying to understand the causes, researchers have extensively studied vandalism.

Four common types of dangling modifiers

(According to Diana Hacker)

  • Participial phrase: Deciding to join the navy, the recruiter enthusiastically pumped Joe’s hand.
  • Preposition followed by a gerund phrase: Upon entering the doctor’s office, the skeleton caught my attention.
  • Infinitive phrase: To please the children, some fireworks were set off a day early.
  • Elliptical clause with an understood subject and verb: Though only sixteen, UCLA accepted Martha’s application.

These dangling modifiers suggest the recruiter is joining the navy; the skeleton entered the doctor’s office; the fireworks intended to please the children; and UCLA is sixteen years old.

Split infinitives

Traditionally, grammar rules instructed that a modifier should not divide the two components of the infinitive form of a verb (to + verb).

Awkward: The weather reporter advised that we could expect it to not rain tomorrow.

Revised: The weather reporter advised that we could expect it not to rain tomorrow.

However, in some cases it is more natural to split the infinitive, as in this example from Strunk and White: “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.” The meaning is clear, and unsplitting the infinitive would only result in an awkward construction.