What Are Modifiers? How to Use Them Correctly

What Are Modifiers?

A working definition for the word “modify” is to change or to alter something. This definition is the same when considering the purpose of modifiers within a sentence.

A modifier changes, clarifies, qualifies, or limits a particular word in a sentence in order to add emphasis, explanation, or detail. Modifiers tend to be descriptive words, such as adjectives and adverbs. Modifier phrases, such as adjective clauses and adverbial phrases, also exist and tend to describe adjectives and adverbs.

To illustrate the power of modifiers, consider the following simple sentence:

Sarah was a sure fit for junior prom queen.

Now consider the same sentence with multiple modifiers added:

The blonde girl named Sarah, who was a foreign exchange student from England, quickly climbed the ladder of popularity during her junior year, smiling her way through cheerleading and an ASB presidency term she inched near the top and was a sure fit as junior prom queen.

The additional details in the sentence, by way of modifiers, engage the reader and hold their attention.

Like most writing techniques, modifiers can be brilliant when used correctly and effectively. On the other hand, if a modifier is used incorrectly, the meaning of the sentence can become blurred or distorted. This is true with dangling modifiers and other problematic modifiers.

Misplaced Modifiers

One of the most common problems is where to place them. Specifically, modifiers can cause confusion or unintentional humor in a sentence when they are placed too far from the noun they are modifying. For example, consider the following sentence:

They bought a car for my sister they call Pumpkin.

In this sentence, Pumpkin is the car’s name, not the sister’s, but this isn’t clear. This confusion and unintentional humor is the result of a misplaced modifier. To correct this error, move the modifier closer to the noun it modifies:

They bought a car they call Pumpkin for my sister.

Limiting Modifiers Limiting modifiers such as only and always enforce restrictions on the subject, noun, or pronoun they immediately precede. The following is a list of other common limiting modifiers:

  • Just
  • Almost
  • Hardly
  • At first
  • Simply

If a limiting modifier does not precede the subject or noun, the meaning of an entire sentence can change. Notice the difference in the following sentences:

Only Jessica wants pizza.

This sentence implies that Jessica is the only person who wants pizza.

Jessica wants pizza only.

On the other hand, the sentence above indicates that Jessica wants pizza and nothing else.

The best way to ensure that a limited modifier is used right in a sentence is to consider the meaning that is to be conveyed and ensure the subject or noun associated with that meaning is placed as close as possible to the limited modifier.

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  • Joseph Edouard

    You refer to “adverbial phrases”. Why do you not use the term “adjectival clauses” rather than “adjective clauses”?

  • Joseph Edouard

    That extended sentence about Sarah feels wrong. If you drop most of the modifiers you get “the blonde girl named Sarah, she inched near the top…” Should you include the pronoun in the same sentence as the antecedent in that manner? It seems awkward. I’d be inclined to start a new sentence after “junior year”.

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