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What Are Modifiers in English Grammar

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes, defines, or clarifies another word in the same sentence in order to add emphasis, explanation or detail. In simple words, it gives information about other parts of the sentence.

Modifiers tend to be descriptive words, such as adjectives and adverbs.

When a modifier is an adjective, it modifies a noun or a pronoun, as in the following example:

✔️ He always buys expensive watches.
(The adjective "expensive" modifies the noun "watches," giving extra information about what kind of watches they are).

When a modifier is an adverb, it modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb, as in the following example:

✔️ He always listens attentively to the teacher.
(The adverb "attentively" modifies the verb "listens," giving important details about how the listening was conducted.)

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

✔️ Professor Smith, who taught me at college, retired.
(The clause "who taught me at college" gives extra information about the noun "Professor Smith".)

✔️ Elizabeth smiled when she walked past the cafe where she first saw her husband.
(The clause "where she first saw her husband" gives extra information about the noun "cafe".)

Modifiers functioning as adjectives

Modifiers functioning as adjectives describe a noun or a pronoun.

Types of modifiers functioning as adjectives:

  1. Single-word modifiers can be:
    • Single-word adjectives: "big", "cheap", "cold".
    • Possessive determiners: "my", "your", "his", "her", "its", "our", "their".
    • Demonstrative determiners: "this", "that", "these", "those".
    • Quantifiers: "many," "some," "two", "a lot of", "all", "enough", "any".
    • Interrogative adjectives: "what", "which", "whose
    • Articles: "a", "an", "the".
  2. Adjectival phrase can be:
    • Any group of words headed by an adjective: "an extremely big," "the very exciting," "that really cheap".
    • Prepositional phrases: "with that guy", "in time", "after the game".
    • Infinitives: "to go," "to understand," "to see".
    • Participle phrases: "removing his coat", "walking along the shoreline," "waiting for Ellie", etc.
  3. An adjective clause is a multiword adjective that includes a subject and a verb. An adjective clause usually comes after the noun it modifies and is made up of several words: "pizza which most people love", "fruit that is grown organically", "someone whose father served in World War II", etc.

Modifiers functioning as adverbs

Modifiers functioning as adverbs describe a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.

Types of modifiers functioning as adverbs:

  1. Single-word adverb: "helpfully", "carefully", "sometimes", "later", "soon", etc.
  2. An adverbial phrase is a group of words that functions as an adverb and modifies verbs. There are three most common formats for adverbial phrases:
    • Prepositional phrases: "in the corner", "without thinking", "with the radio", "toward the finish line".
    • Infinitive phrases: "to plant a garden", "to go on vacation".
    • An adverb with an intensifier: "very quickly", "extremely slowly", "really quietly", etc.
  3. An adverbial clause is a group of words that plays the role of an adverb and contains a subject and a verb: "until her arms ached", "once they saw it turn the corner", "because I couldn’t chew anything", etc.

Misplaced modifiers

A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is positioned too far away from the word, phrase or clause. It is intended to modify and, as a result, appears to be modifying something else. A misplaced modifier makes the meaning of a sentence ambiguous or wrong. That is why a modifier is best placed alongside whatever it's modifying. For example:

  • On her way home, Jan found a gold man's watch.
  • ✔️ On her way home, Jan found a man's gold watch.

In this example, the misplaced modifier "gold" is too far away from "watch" and implies that the man was gold. Moving the modifier correctly indicates that the watch was gold.

Dangling modifiers

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. A dangling modifier occurs when the subject of a modifier is missing from the sentence. Make sure the thing being modified is actually in the sentence. For example:

  • Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on.
  • ✔️ Having finished the assignment, Jill turned on the TV.

In this example, the subject who has finished the assignment is not stated. That is why modifier "having finished the assignment" does not modify anything in this sentence. A dangling modifier like this can be fixed by rewriting the main clause in active voice.

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