English Grammar Basic Grammar and syntax

What are modifiers? (with examples)

What are modifiers? (with examples)

The direct modifier informs us about the qualities that the name possesses. The qualifying adjective is who performs this function. Example: Adjective. Qualifying. big house. nucleus. MD.

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes something or makes its meaning more specific. Modifiers work like adjectives or adverbs.

Examples of modifiers that work like adjectives

When a modifier is an adjective, it modifies a noun or a pronoun. (In these examples, the modifiers are shaded and the words being modified are in bold.)

Type of modifier Example
Single word adjective
  • mackerel
    small (The modifier is a descriptive word.)
  • that mouse
    (The modifier is a demonstrative determiner.)
  • the one
    (The modifier is a definite article.)
  • a teacher
    (The modifier is a quantifier.)

Single-word modifiers can be normal adjectives (for example,“little“, “handsome“, “caro“) or determinants such as:

  • possessive determiners (e.g.,“mi“, “tu“)
  • demographic determinants (p. e.g.,“this“, “those“)
  • quantifiers (e.g.,“Many“, “Some“, “From“)
  • interrogative adjectives (p. ej.,“which“, “what“)
  • Articles (“and“, “and“, “the“)
Type of modifier Example
Adjective phrase
  • an extremely small mackerel
  • mouse in the corner
  • one to remember
  • Peering over his glasses, Professor Jones b>…

Adjective phrases can be any group of words headed by an adjective (for example,“an extremely small“, “the very beautiful“, “that really expensive“) or another multi-word adjective form such as:

  • prepositional phrases (eg,“in the corner“, “with the cake“, “from your collection“)
  • infinitives (p. e.g.,“to remember“, “comprar“, “consider“)
  • participial sentences (e.g.,“Looking over his glasses“, “Imbued with common sense“, “knowing the area“)
Type of modifier Example
Adjective clause
  • mackerel gathering near the surface
  • mouse that lives in the cupboard
  • the one who knows the secret
  • Professor Jones , who taught me in college, visited…

Examples of modifiers that function as adverbs

When a modifier is an adverb, it modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. (In these examples, the modifiers are shaded and the words being modified are in bold.)

Type of modifier Example
Single word adverb
  • He plays very well.
  • Go away tomorrow .
  • Think carefully .
    (Adverbs are modifying verbs in all three examples above.)
  • extremely beautiful
    (The adverb modifies an adjective.)
  • really fast
    (The adverb is modifying an adverb).
Type of modifier Example
adverbial phrase
  • He plays in the corner .
  • Stop keeping the peace .
  • Think very carefully.

Adverbial phrases modify verbs. The three most common formats for adverbial phrases are as follows:

  • Prepositional phrases (eg,“in the corner“, “without any effort“)
  • Infinitive phrases. (e.g.,“Keep the peace“, “think about the problem“).
  • An adverb with an intensifier. (eg“very carefully“, “extremely slow“, “very strong“)

There are other formats. For example:

  • They paid a day later than promised.
  • I played every week.
Type of modifier Example
Adverbial clause
  • Touch until the stars appear .
  • Go away if you want to go .
  • Think like a weasel thinks.

Adverbial clauses modify verbs. They have the following properties:

  • An adverbial clause contains a subject and a verb. (This is what makes it a clause instead of a phrase.)
  • An adverbial clause is a dependent clause. This means that it cannot stand alone as a meaningful sentence in its own right.
  • An adverbial clause usually begins with a subordinate conjunction (eg,“why“, “and“, “until“, “when“, “as“)

A summary of modifiers

As shown in these examples, modifiers come in many different formats. But regardless of whether it’s a single word, a phrase, or a clause, a modifier works like an adjective or an adverb. In a nutshell, a modifier is just a word(s) that describes another word(s). It is also worth noting that a modifier that comes before what it modifies is called“premodifier“, and a modifier that comes after is called“postmodifier“.

Why should I care about modifiers?

If you’re learning grammar, you can’t avoid the word“modifier“. Most sentences will have some type of modifier. After all, modifiers bring writing to life.

As you may have seen, there are many different types of modifiers. Each of the different types has its own writing problems or pitfalls, which are covered on the pages of those specific entries. For example, writing problems related to possessive determiners are explained on the page about possessive determiners. However, here are three high level points related to mods.

(Point 1) Be careful where you place your modifiers.

Here are three ways a modifier can fail to be misplaced:

(1) A Misplaced Modifier
A modifier is best placed next to whatever it is modifying. If your modifier is too far away, it could lead to an ambiguous or incorrect meaning. For example:

  • John heard her when he whispered clearly. ❌
    (This sentence is about John clearly hearing. The modifier is too far from“listened“. It seems that“clearly“is modifying“whispered“. It’s a misplaced modifier).
  • John heard her clearly when he whispered. ✔️
    (This version is better. It’s unambiguous.)

(2) A squint modifier

If your modifier can modify the text to its left or right, move it to a less ambiguous position or rephrase your sentence. For example:

  • Your slow driving becomes annoying. ❌
    (?“slowly“modification“ride“ o “becomes“? This is ambiguous. It’s a squint modifier.)
  • Your slow driving becomes annoying. ✔️
    (We’ve changed the modifier to an adjective. This version is better. It’s unambiguous.)

(3) A Dangling Modifier
Make sure that what is being modified is actually in the sentence. For example:

  • Peering from the bush , a flash caught her attention. ❌
    (“looking from the bush“does not modify anything in this sentence. That makes it a pending modifier).
  • Peering from the bush , John noticed a flash. ✔️
    (“looking from the bush“now modify“John“. The dangling modifier has been fixed).

(Point 2) If your multi-word adverb (phrase or clause) is in front, compare it with a comma.

  • If you don’t want your kids to be like Bart Simpson , don’t act like Homer Simpson. (Producer Matt Groening) ✔️
    (“If you don’t want your kids to be like Bart Simpson“is an adverbial clause. Since it is at the beginning of the sentence, it is followed by a comma. The comma is useful to show where the adverbial clause ends and the main clause begins.)
  • After climbing a big hill , one only discovers that there are many more hills to climb. (President Nelson Mandela) ✔️
    (“After climbing a big hill“is an adverbial phrase. It’s in front, so it’s followed by a comma).

Now look at these examples. This time, the multi-word adverbs are at the end.

  • Don’t act like Homer Simpson if you don’t want your kids to be like Bart Simpson. ✔️
    (There is no comma before the adverbial clause because it is postponed, i.e. at the end.)
  • One only discovers that there are many more hills to climb after climbing one big hill. ✔️
    (There is no comma before the adverbial phrase because it is postponed.)

When the adverb in front is a single word, there is more leniency. It is common style to omit the comma.

  • Yesterday we obeyed kings and bowed our necks to emperors. Today we kneel only before the truth, follow only beauty and obey only love. (Poet Khalil Gibran)✔️

(Point 3) If the clause of your adjective is not essential to the meaning, compare it with commas.

A group of words that describes a noun or a pronoun and is introduced by a relative pronoun. I know a woman who is fluent in two languages: I know a woman who is fluent in two languages.

If your adjective clause doesn’t define what you’re modifying (ie it’s just additional information), compare it to commas.

  • John Smith, who saw the snake, has set a trap. ✔️
    (The adjective clause“who saw the snake“ no define a “John Smith“. It is just additional information. We could have put the clause in parentheses (square brackets) or even removed it. That’s why it’s comma offset).
  • The boy who saw the snake has set a trap. ✔️
    (This time,“who saw the snake“yes define“the boy“. He tells us which child we are talking about. The clause is not just additional information. It is essential for meaning. That’s why there are no commas).

Key Points

  • To avoid ambiguity, place your modifier next to whatever it’s modifying.
  • If your multi-word adverb is in front, use a comma. Don’t use a comma if it’s at the back.
  • If your adverbial clause defines your noun, don’t offset it with commas.

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