What is a modifier?
Modifiers are, quite simply, any word or group of words that modifies (describes or elaborates upon) another element in a sentence. Modifiers can either be adjectives, which modify nouns (or sometimes pronouns), or adverbs, which modify pretty much everything else (usually verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs). Whether a modifier is an adjective or adverb depends on what it modifies and how it functions in a sentence.
Adjectives have two basic syntactic categories: attributive and predicative.
Adjectives that appear directly before (or sometimes directly after) the noun or pronoun they modify are known as attributive adjectives. These can appear anywhere in a sentence.
Let’s compare two examples to highlight this difference:
- “The black dog is barking.”
In this sentence, black is an attributive adjective. It is part of the noun phrase and is not connected to the noun dog by a linking verb. Now let’s look at a predicative adjective:
- “The dog was black.”
In this sentence, black is a predicative adjective. It follows dog, the noun that it modifies, and is connected to it by the linking verb was.
Other categories of adjectives
There is a huge variety of adjectives in English. While many words are adjectival in nature, such as colors (red, black, yellow, etc.), there are also several categories of adjectives that are formed from other sources. The table below will give a brief breakdown of these categories of adjectives, along with some examples. Go to each individual section to learn more.
Category of Adjective
Formed from proper nouns to create descriptive words.
Italian, Shakespearean, Alaskan, Middle Eastern, Nordic
"He writes in an almost Shakespearean style."
Created from two or more words that work jointly to modify the same noun; they always appear before the noun they modify and are usually joined with a hyphen(s).
top-right, last-minute, sugar-free, record-breaking, expensive-looking
“I know this is a last-minute suggestion, but hear me out.”
Demonstrative Adjectives (or Demonstrative Determiners)
Used to specify what we are referring to, whether it is singular or plural, and to give more information about its proximity to the speaker.
this, that, these, those
“These cups are very pretty.”
Usually used to ask questions about something.
what, which, whose
“Whose computer is this?”
Adjectives that perform the function of a noun in a sentence. They are preceded by the word the and can be found as the subject or the object of a sentence or clause.
the best, the strongest, the blue
“He wants the red car, but I want the blue.”
A subgroup of nominal adjectives, used to refer to a group of people based on a shared characteristic.
the rich, the poor, the innocent, the French, the Dutch
“The rich should help the poor.”
Adjective Phrases and Clauses
In addition to the single-word adjectives we looked at above, we can also use adjective phrases and relative clauses (also called adjective clauses) to modify nouns. We’ll look at both briefly below, but to learn more about how they are formed and used, go to their sections in the chapter on Adjectives.
An adjective phrase is an adjective and any additional information linked to it that work together to describe a noun or pronoun in a sentence. The adjective around which an adjective phrase is formed is known as the head word of the phrase. When the head word is a participle, the phrase is known as a participle phrase.
- “You have a beautiful voice.”
- “He is a very good swimmer.”
- “The helicopters are controlled remotely.”
- “I am perfectly content on my own.”
- “People wearied by travel often stop here to rest.”
- “They felt relieved to return home.”
Relative Clauses (Adjective Clauses)
Relative clauses (also known as adjective or adjectival clauses) are dependent clauses that provide descriptive information about a noun or noun phrase. Relative clauses are introduced by either a relative pronoun or a relative adverb, and the information they provide can either be essential or nonessential to the completeness of the sentence.
- “There’s the woman who always sits next to me on the bus.”
- “The book that I wrote is being published in January.”
- “The escaped giraffe, which had been on the loose for weeks, was finally captured.”
- “The house where I was born is a very special place.”
- “I love casual Fridays, when we get to wear jeans to work.”
As we learned above, an adverb is a word that modifies or describes a verb, adjective, other adverb, or an entire clause. For example:
- “You write beautifully.” (The adverb beautifully modifies the verb write.)
- “He owns the bright red car.” (The adverb bright modifies the adjective red.)
- “She ran very quickly to the bus.” (The adverb very modifies the adverb quickly.)
- “She looked excited, as if she could jump up and dance at any moment.” (The adverbial clause as if she could jump up and dance at any moment modifies the independent clause She looked excited.)
There are many different categories of adverbs, which provide specific kinds of descriptions and which behave slightly differently in a sentence.
The table below provides a quick breakdown of the different categories and how they are used to describe something in a sentence. Go to the section for each individual category to see more examples and learn more about how each one is used.
(Note that most of the examples below are single-word adverbs. However, adverbial phrases—and sometimes adverbial clauses—can also belong to each category.)
Category of Adverb
Describe when or for how long something happens or is the case.
now, tomorrow, yesterday, still, yet, later
“We are eating now.”
Describe how frequently something happens or is the case. A subset of Adverbs of Time.
always, usually, sometimes, often, rarely, daily, weekly, monthly
“I rarely eat breakfast in bed.”
Describe the direction, distance, movement, or position involved in the action of a verb.
north, everywhere, here, there, forward, downward, up, uphill, behind
“I absolutely hate running uphill.”
Describe how something happens or how someone does something. Usually formed from adjectives.
beautifully, wonderfully, slowly, deliberately, happily
“He walked slowly towards the bar.”
Describe the intensity, degree, or extent of the verb, adjective, or adverb they are modifying.
undoubtedly, truly, very, quite, pretty, somewhat, fairly
“I'm fairly certain this is correct.”
Describe why something happens or is the case. Single-word adverbs are usually conjunctive adverbs.
therefore, thus, consequently, hence
“We’ve never seen such high numbers. We must therefore conclude that the results are not normal.”
Used to draw attention to a particular part of a clause.
also, exclusively, just, mostly, notably, primarily
“They played mostly techno music at the party.”
Used to modify the meaning of a verb, adjective, other adverb, or entire clause in a negative way. Used in many of the other categories above.
no, not, hardly, barely, never, seldom
“He does not work on Mondays.”
Used to connect independent clauses and describe the relationship between them.
comparatively, therefore, also, however, moreover, similarly
“Jen is terrible at math; however, she still likes it.”
Used by the speaker to comment or give an opinion on something. Evaluative adverbs modify the entire clause.
apparently, astonishingly, clearly, frankly, obviously, presumably
“Clearly, we're going to have to work harder.”
Used to indicate whose point of view we are expressing, or to specify what aspect of something we are talking about. (Many viewpoint adverbs are adverbial phrases.)
personally, in my point of view, according to you, scientifically, biologically
“Personally, I don’t believe it’s true.”
Used to introduce relative clauses, when the information relates to a place, time, or the reason an action took place.
where, when, why
“I don’t know why he got angry.”
Nouns or noun phrases that function grammatically as adverbs to modify verbs and certain adjectives, usually specifying time, distance, weight, age, or monetary value.
tomorrow, an hour, an ounce, five dollars, 25 years
“I can barely see a foot in front of me in this fog.”
An adverbial phrase (also known as an adverb phrase) is group of words that functions as an adverb in a sentence. These can be adverbs modified by other adverbs, adverbial prepositional phrases, or adverbial infinitive phrases.
- “The kicker is running somewhat slowly back to the bench. He might be injured.”
- “He performed very well on his exam.”
- “We were playing Frisbee at the park.”
- “After they woke up, they packed up their things and went on a hike.”
- “Patricia went to the mountains to go for a hike.”
- “I’m so happy to be your friend.”
An adverbial clause, or adverb clause, is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate and is used, like a regular adverb, to modify adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.
Adverbial clauses use subordinating conjunctions to connect them to independent clauses; the way an adverbial clause modifies an element in a sentence depends on the kind of subordinating conjunction used. For example:
- “I will arrive when dinner is ready.” (adverbial clause of time)
- “Peter brings his sunglasses everywhere he goes.” (adverbial clause of place)
- “I admire you because you are an inspiration to many people.” (adverbial clause of time or purpose)
- “They’ll approve your request provided you pay the appropriate amount of money.” (adverbial clause of condition)
- “She looked excited, as if she could jump up and dance at any moment.” (adverbial clause of comparison or manner)
- “Although she doesn’t have much money, Wendy often goes traveling.” (adverbial clause of contrast)
Common modifier mistakes
In simple sentences, it is usually easy to understand what a modifier is modifying. However, when we begin adding more information into longer sentences, we must be careful that we make it clear which elements are modifying which parts of the sentence.
If we place a modifier too far away from the thing it describes, it can become a misplaced modifier. In some cases, a modifier may be in the correct position for its intended recipient, but too close to another element, making it look like it is describing the wrong thing; this is known as a squinting modifier.
We must also make sure that the thing being modified is explicitly stated in the text, otherwise we might be left with a dangling modifier.
A misplaced modifier can occur when we don’t place the modifier close enough to the word that it modifies, making its meaning unclear or incorrect. For example:
- “Burton was driving around the countryside while his friend sang songs slowly.”
Because of its placement in the above sentence, we would presume that the adverb slowly is modifying sang. If it is meant to modify driving, the adverb should be placed directly before or after the verb it’s modifying to eliminate this confusion, as in:
- “Burton was slowly driving around the countryside while his friend sang songs.”
- “Burton was driving slowly around the countryside while his friend sang songs.”
Here’s another example:
- “The rusted woman’s bicycle made a horrible screeching noise.”
Now the sentence is completely incorrect, because, due to its position, rusted is modifying woman instead of bicycle. The sentence should read:
- “The woman’s rusted bicycle made a horrible screeching noise.”
With participle phrases
These types of errors often occur with participle phrases. Because they can appear in the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence, it can be easy to misplace the noun or noun phrase they are modifying. For instance:
- “Terrified after watching a scary movie, my father had to comfort my little sister.”
In the above sentence, the participle phrase terrified after watching a scary movie is supposed to modify my little sister. However, since my father appears closer to the participle phrase, it seems it is the father who is terrified.
The sentence should be rewritten to correct the misplaced modifier. For example:
- “My father had to comfort my sister, terrified after watching a scary movie.”
- “Terrified after watching a scary movie, my sister had to be comforted by my father.”
- “My sister, terrified after watching a scary movie, had to be comforted by my father.”
Occasionally we use a modifier in the correct technical position, but its meaning can be misconstrued because of another word that is too close to it. This usually happens with adverbials, as they can appear before or after the words they modify. For example:
- “The way he sings so often annoys me.”
So often seems like it could be modifying either sings or annoys, because it’s technically in the correct position for both. We should rewrite the sentence to make it more clear what is meant:
- “The way he sings so often is annoying to me.” (modifies sings)
- “The way he sings annoys me so often.” (modifies annoys)
A dangling modifier occurs when we don’t clearly state the noun that is supposed to be modified by the modifying phrase. These are especially common with participle phrases. For example:
- “Walking down the road, the birds were singing.”
Because the sentence does not state who was walking down the road, is seems that it was the birds, which is probably not the intended meaning. The sentence needs to include another noun or pronoun being described by the phrase to correct the dangling modifier. For example:
- “Walking down the road, I (or she, he, Mary, the couple, etc.) heard the birds singing.”
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