by Craig Shrives

What Are Modifiers? (with Examples)

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes something or makes its meaning more specific. Modifiers function as adjectives or adverbs.
modifier examples

Examples of Modifiers Functioning as Adjectives

When a modifier is an adjective, it modifies a noun or a pronoun. (In these examples, the modifiers are shaded, and the words being modified are bold.)
Type of ModifierExample
Single-word Adjective
  • small mackerel
  • (The modifier is a descriptive word.)
  • that mouse
  • (The modifier is a demonstrative determiner.)
  • the one
  • (The modifier is a definite article.)
  • one professor
  • (The modifier is a quantifier.)
    Single-word modifiers can be normal adjectives (e.g., "small," "beautiful," "expensive") or determiners such as:
    Type of ModifierExample
    Adjectival Phrase
  • an extremely small mackerel
  • mouse in the corner
  • one to remember
  • Looking over his glasses, Professor Jones...
  • Adjectival phrases can be any group of words headed by an adjective (e.g., "an extremely small," "the very beautiful," "that really expensive") or another form of multi-word adjective such as: Read more about adjective phrases.
    Type of ModifierExample
    Adjective Clause
  • mackerel that gather near the surface
  • mouse that lives in the cupboard
  • one who knows the secret
  • Professor Jones, who taught me at college, visited...
  • Read more about adjective clauses.

    Examples of Modifiers Functioning as Adverbs

    When a modifier is an adverb, it modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. (In these examples, the modifiers are shaded, and the words being modified are bold.)
    Type of ModifierExample
    Single-word Adverb
  • He plays nicely.
  • Leave tomorrow.
  • Think carefully.
  • (The adverbs are modifying verbs in the three examples above.)
  • extremely beautiful
  • (The adverb is modifying an adjective.)
  • really quickly
  • (The adverb is modifying an adverb.)
    Type of ModifierExample
    Adverbial Phrase
  • He plays in the corner.
  • Leave to keep the peace.
  • Think very carefully.
  • Adverbial phrases modify verbs. The three most common formats for adverbial phrases are as follows: There are other formats. For example:
    • They paid a day later than promised.
    • I played every week.
    Read more about adverbial phrases.
    Type of ModifierExample
    Adverbial Clause
  • He plays until the stars appear.
  • Leave if you want to leave.
  • Think like a weasel thinks.
  • Adverbial clauses modify verbs. They have the following properties:
    • An adverbial clause contains a subject and a verb. (This is what makes it a clause as opposed to a phrase.)
    • An adverbial clause is a dependent clause. This means it cannot stand alone as meaningful sentence in its own right.
    • An adverbial clause usually starts with a subordinating conjunction (e.g., "because," "if," "until," "when," "like")
    Read more about adverbial clauses.

    A Summary of Modifiers

    As shown by these examples, modifiers come in lots of different formats. But, regardless of whether it's a single word, a phrase, or clause, a modifier functions as an adjective or an adverb. Put simply, a modifier is just a word(s) that describes another word(s). Also of note, a modifier that comes before whatever it modifies is called a "premodifier," and a modifier that comes afterwards is called a "postmodifier." If you're learning grammar, you can't avoid the word "modifier." Most sentences will have some sort of modifier. After all, modifiers bring writing to life.

    As you will have seen, there are lots of different types of modifiers. Each of the different types has its own writing issues or traps, which are covered on the pages for the those specific entries. For example, writing issues related to possessive determiners are explained on the page about possessive determiners. Here though are three top-level points related to modifiers.

    (Point 1) Be careful where you place your modifiers.

    Here are three ways a modifier can fail by being positioned badly:

    (1) A Misplaced Modifier

    A modifier is best placed alongside whatever it's modifying. If your modifier is too far away, it could lead to an ambiguous or wrong meaning. For example:
    • John heard her when she whispered clearly. wrong cross
    • (This sentence is about John hearing clearly. The modifier is too far away from "heard." It looks like "clearly" is modifying "whispered." It's a misplaced modifier.)
    • John heard her clearly when she whispered. correct tick
    • (This version is better. It's unambiguous.)
    Read more about misplaced modifiers. (2) A Squinting Modifier

    If your modifier could feasibly modify the text to its left or right, move it to a less ambiguous position or reword your sentence. For example:
    • His driving slowly becomes annoying. wrong cross
    • (Does "slowly" modify "driving" or "becomes"? This is ambiguous. It's a squinting modifier.)
    • His slow driving becomes annoying. correct tick
    • (We've changed the modifier to an adjective. This version is better. It's unambiguous.)
    Read more about squinting modifiers. (3) A Dangling Modifier

    Make sure the thing being modified is actually in the sentence. For example:
    • Peering out of the bush, a glint caught his eye. wrong cross
    • ("Peering out of the bush" doesn't modify anything in this sentence. That makes it a dangling modifier.)
    • Peering out of the bush, John noticed a glint. correct tick
    • ("Peering out of the bush" now modifies "John." The dangling modifier has been fixed.)
    Read more about dangling modifiers.

    (Point 2) If your multi-word adverb (phrase or clause) is fronted, offset it with a comma.

    • If you don't want your kids to be like Bart Simpson, don't act like Homer Simpson. correct tick (Producer Matt Groening)
    • ("If you don't want your kids to be like Bart Simpson" is an adverbial clause. As it's at the front of the sentence, it is followed by a comma. The comma is useful to show where the adverbial clause ends and the main clause starts.)
    • After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. correct tick (President Nelson Mandela)
    • ("After climbing a great hill" is an adverbial phrase. It is fronted, so it is followed by a comma.)
    Now look at these examples. This time, the multi-word adverbs are at the back.
    • Don't act like Homer Simpson if you don't want your kids to be like Bart Simpson. correct tick
    • (There is no comma before the adverbial clause because it is post-positioned, i.e., at the back.)
    • One only finds that there are many more hills to climb after climbing a great hill. correct tick
    • (There is no comma before the adverbial phrase because it is post-positioned.)
    When the fronted adverb is a single word, there is more leniency. It is a common style to omit the comma.
    • Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. Today we kneel only to truth, follow only beauty, and obey only love. correct tick (Poet Khalil Gibran)
    Read more about using commas with adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses.

    (Point 3) If your adjective clause is not essential for meaning, offset it with commas.

    If your adjective clause does not define whatever it is modifying (i.e., it is just additional information), then offset it with commas.
    • John Smith, who saw the snake, has set a trap. correct tick
    • (The adjective clause "who saw the snake" does not define "John Smith." It's just additional information. We could have put the clause in parentheses (brackets) or even deleted it. That's why it's offset with commas.)
    • The boy who saw the snake has set a trap. correct tick
    • (This time, "who saw the snake" does define "the boy." It tells us which boy we're talking about. The clause is not just additional information. It is essential for meaning. That's why there are no commas.)
    Read more about adjective clauses. Read more about using commas with "which," "that," and "who."

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    See Also

    What are misplaced modifiers? What are dangling modifiers? What are squinting modifiers? What is a limiting modifier? What are prepositional phrases? What are indefinite adjectives? What are interrogative adjectives? What are predicate adjectives? What are possessive adjectives? What are articles? What are compound adjectives? What are demonstrative adjectives? What are possessive adjectives? Glossary of grammatical terms

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