Modifiers, as their name implies, are words that modify. Specifically, they’re words that modify their sentences’ meanings. How do you specify what somebody looks like? With modifiers. How do you describe how an action is being performed? With a modifier. How do you communicate where, when, or how something happened? You guessed it—with modifiers.
What is a modifier?
As we mentioned above, modifiers are words that modify their sentences’ meanings. Take a look at these two examples:
- I rode the train.
- I rode the earliest train into the city.
The second sentence is more descriptive because of the modifiers it contains. Fundamentally, modifiers’ purpose is to make sentences more descriptive or detailed. They can make a sentence’s meaning clearer, make a sentence more specific, or simply make it more engaging. Both of the example sentences above are complete sentences, but only one provides additional details about the train ride. These details, depending on how this sentence fits into a larger conversation, could serve as foreshadowing, clarification, distinction between this and another statement, or a means to hook the listener’s attention.
The second sentence contains both a modifier and a modifier phrase. While a modifier is a single word that alters a sentence’s meaning, a modifier phrase is a phrase that functions as a modifier. This is similar to how adjective phrases are phrases that function as adjectives, noun phrases are phrases that function as nouns, and other grammatical phrases function as specific parts of speech.
A few examples of single words that may be used as modifiers are:
Modifier phrases, which can be adverbial or adjectival phrases, are phrases like:
- Beneath the car
- A somewhat slow
- Without a care
Sometimes, clauses act as modifiers. These, too, are generally either adverbial or adjectival and can look like:
- When the sun rises
- Who wore gray jeans
- With excitement in her eyes
Here are a few examples of modifier phrases in action:
- We waited until the last minute to mention our concerns.
- The kid with green sneakers kicked the ball.
And here are some examples of modifier clauses working in sentences:
- My sister won the contest, as she had hoped.
- The pedestrian, who had been waiting for fifteen minutes, didn’t step aside.
How are modifiers structured?
Typically, modifiers are placed right beside the noun they’re modifying. Usually, this means right before or after the noun:
- My calico cat is always by my side.
- The girls ordered a pizza without sauce.
This is also true when they’re modifying a verb or adjective:
- He bought a bright blue van.
- I told the students to listen carefully to the lecture.
When a modifier isn’t in this position, it can make the sentence confusing for a reader or listener. This is known as a misplaced modifier. Here are a few examples of misplaced modifiers:
- They bought a car for my sister they call Pumpkin.
- We built a house for them out of bricks.
In the first sentence, who is Pumpkin? Is it the sister or the car? In the second, did they run out of bricks? Did we build a house using bricks? Did they previously live in bricks?
Here are the same two sentences with their modifiers in the correct positions:
- They bought a car that they call Pumpkin for my sister.
- We built a house out of bricks for them.
See the difference?
Squinting and dangling modifiers
One type of misplaced modifier is known as a dangling modifier. A dangling modifier is a modifier that doesn’t modify any specific word in the sentence. Here are a few examples:
- After reading the book, the movie was great.
- Before leaving, a squirrel crossed the sidewalk.
You might be able to guess what these sentences are communicating, but they feel awkward and choppy. That’s because their modifiers aren’t actually modifying any nouns. Clearer ways of writing these sentences are:
- After reading the book, I thought the movie was great.
- Before leaving, I watched a squirrel cross the sidewalk.
Dangling modifiers aren’t the only type of misplaced modifier. Another type is known as a squinting modifier. This kind of modifier is unclear because it’s placed in a way that makes it just as applicable to the word before it as it is to the word following it. Take a look at these examples:
- The kids who played at the playground sometimes bought ice cream.
- Emi hoped when class was over she could check her phone.
With these sentences, moving the modifier around fixes any clarity challenges:
- Sometimes, the kids who played at the playground bought ice cream.
- The kids who sometimes played at the playground bought ice cream.
- When class was over, Emi hoped she could check her phone.
- Emi hoped she could check her phone when class was over.
What are the different kinds of modifiers?
As we mentioned above, modifiers can be single words, phrases, or clauses. For a quick refresher on how to fit these components together to build sentences, read our post on sentence structure.
An adjective phrase can act as a modifier. Adjective phrases are phrases that function as adjectives, which means they describe nouns. You might hear or read that adjective phrases describe adjectives, and this is true in a pedantic sense—an adjective phrase does replace a single adjective by describing what that single adjective would communicate. But the purpose of an adjective is to describe a noun, and an adjective phrase ultimately describes a noun by providing a more vivid description than a single adjective can.
With that out of the way, take a look at these examples of adjective phrases working as modifiers:
- The building that was taller than the others was prone to power outages.
- Our generally aloof cat surprised us by accepting the new kitten.
Adjective clauses can work as modifiers too. Here are a few examples:
- Kiara, a student who had recently transferred, asked about the school’s testing schedule.
- The service that catered our parties just increased their prices.
And of course, single adjectives can be used as modifiers too:
- I want to go to the retro arcade for my birthday.
- They saw a yellow bird in the garden.
This includes possessive adjectives:
- The paint splattered all over my car.
An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Naturally, they’re often used as modifiers:
- She performed her solo perfectly.
- We are very experienced designers.
Adverbial phrases are a lot like adjectival phrases in that they’re phrases that perform the same functions as adverbs. And like adjectival phrases, adverbial phrases are often used by writers to make descriptions more vivid:
- She performed her solo with perfect pitch.
- We have years of experience as designers.
Writers also modify sentences with adverbial clauses like:
- The band played like a high school garage band plays.
- They hung their clothes like the closet was a boutique.
Prepositional phrases can also be used as modifiers. Here are a few example sentences:
- The woman with blue hair bought four romanescos.
- All the fish in the lake play a role in the ecosystem.
Limiting modifiers are modifiers that add detail by describing the limits a noun, pronoun, or other subject in a sentence faces. Words that are often used as limiting modifiers include:
In a sentence, a limiting modifier can look like this:
- I just want to go on vacation.
Examples of modifiers
You use modifiers in your everyday speech and writing without realizing it. Take a look at these examples to see a variety of ways modifiers operate in sentences:
- We went to the beach on our vacation last year.
- Mossimo always asks me how work is going.
- Kristi grew tomatoes that were bigger than everybody else’s.
- Before school starts, the teachers all drink iced coffee.
- We produced our movie on a tight budget.
What is a modifier?
Modifiers are words that modify their sentences’ meanings by adding details and clarifying facts or by differentiating between people, events, or objects.
How do modifiers work?
Modifiers work by adding descriptive language to sentences, either just before or just after the words they are modifying. For example, here’s how the word only can modify a sentence:
- We stopped once.
- We only stopped once.
What are the different kinds of modifiers?
Different kinds of modifiers include:
- Adjective phrases
- Adjective clauses
- Adverbial phrases
- Adverbial clauses
- Limiting modifiers
- Misplaced modifiers
- Prepositional phrases