Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses, which have the functionality of an adjective or adverb, and are used to modify the meaning of a sentence.1 Most commonly, this involves offering additional information, describing something, or making the meaning of words or phrases in a sentence more specific.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a modifier as “a word or phrase that makes specific the meaning of another word or phrase”.2
Essentially, modifiers function as an optional element within a sentence, altering its meaning, or providing additional information. They function in much the same way as an adjective or adverb would.
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The structure of modifiers
A modifier will usually appear directly before or after the word or phrase it is modifying.
If a modifier appears at the beginning of a sentence, it will always modify the subject of the sentence.3
A modifier must always modify a word or phrase that appears within the same sentence.
When a modifier appears in a position that does not adhere to the established structure, it can be described as a misplaced modifier. There are two main types of misplaced modifiers.4
A dangling modifier is a modifier that does not alter anything within a sentence.
Another misplaced modifier type is a squinting modifier. This is a type of modifier that is positioned so that it is difficult to determine what is being modified.
What are the different kinds of modifiers?
A single-word modifier is a modifier made up of just one word. Adjectives are some of the most obvious examples of single-word modifiers, and these can include colors (red cardigan, yellow book), descriptions (beautiful woman, wet floor), and numbers (one burger, two boys).
However, a phrase can also be a modifier, and a good example of this can be seen with descriptions of location.
A limiting modifier, meanwhile, describes the limits of a noun. Examples of these words include “always”, “never”, “only”, “nearly”, and “just”.
Modifiers can be identified because they are words or phrases that alter the meaning of a sentence. The sentence should still make sense without them, but their presence offers extra information.
For example, the modifier in “the blue shirt” is the word “blue”. The phrase would make sense without it, but the modifier describes the shirt’s color.
The most commonly known modifiers are adjectives or adverbs. However, a modifier can also be an adjectival phrase, which is a phrase that functions as an adjective, or an adverbial phrase.
Typically, a modifier should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase it is modifying. This usually means it will appear directly before or directly after the part of the sentence being described, or altered.
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1 Nordquist, Richard. “What Is a Modifier in Grammar?.” ThoughtCo. August 12, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/modifier-in-grammar-1691400.
2 Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. “Modifier.” Accessed October 18, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/modifier.
3 McLaughlin Library. “Placing Modifiers Correctly.” University of Guelph. Accessed October 18, 2022. https://guides.lib.uoguelph.ca/c.php?g=696322&p=4999526.
4 Kramer, Lindsay. “What Are Modifiers? How to Use Them Correctly, with Examples.” Grammarly blog. July 18, 2022. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/modifiers/.