Let’s be real: June passed by in the span of a couple hours. I meant to give you a post about adjectives then and a post about adverbs today, but instead…
Yeah, somehow I missed an entire month.
Time is a mysterious thing. Rather than expound endlessly upon its ineffable complexities, let’s dive right in and eagerly explore the marvelous world of modifiers.
In this post, we’ll refer to concepts and terms from the article on adjectives, on adverbs, and on phrases and clauses.
General Disclaimer: While I love grammar, I’m also new at learning it. I will do my best to explain things correctly. If you find that I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented something, please share that in the comments. Please do so kindly, though. The goal of this is for all of us to learn and become better writers, and people learn better from kindness than troll-ness.
What is a modifier?
Definition: A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that changes or adds to the meaning of another word.
In the examples, modifiers will be bolded and the words they modify will be italicized.
Often times, modifiers are adjectives and adverbs.
- The yellow bus (yellow tells us what kind of bus)
- He slowly ran (slowly tells us in what way he ran)
- He ran crazily (crazily tells us in what way he ran)
- A grande iced green tea latte, please (grande, iced, green, and tea all modify what kind of latte we’re ordering)
- The old, run-down house (old and run-down modify what kind of house we’re looking at)
Comma Rule: Coordinate Adjectives
In the last two examples above, you may have noticed that one had a list of adjectives with no comma while the other had a list of adjectives with a comma. This was not a mistake.
Rule: Commas are needed between coordinate adjectives.
Definition: Coordinate adjectives are adjectives that have equal weight in describing the noun.
Coordinate adjectives can be rearranged without changing the meaning of the description.
- It was a windy, cold day.
- It was a cold, windy day.
Another way of determining if adjectives are coordinate is to insert “and” in between them.
Non-coordinate adjectives cannot be rearranged and therefore do not need commas to distinguish them.
While we are on the subject, adjectives in English have a specific order. This is an unconscious order learned from hearing the language spoken; I didn’t notice it until I read Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsythe (Side note: Elements of Eloquence is a fantastic book. It strengthened my prose remarkably and is one of my favorite books on writing.)
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”Forsythe, Mark. Elements of Eloquence. Icon Books Ltd, 2016.
If you’re interested in more on this, you might find this BBC article by Forsythe intriguing. Or just go read his book.
One use of modifiers is to compare two or more things. We do this by using the comparative or superlative degree.
Comparative degree: Used to show a comparison between two things; add “more” OR “-er.”
Superlative degree: Used to show comparison between more than two things; add “most” OR “-est.”
|eager||more eager||most eager|
|beautifully||more beautifully||most beautifully|
Exceptions to the rule:
It is important to note that double comparisons aren’t conventional in standard English.
- Not more friendlier but friendlier
- Not most reddest but reddest
On the subject of doubles, standard English conventions avoid double negatives.
Definition: A statement in which two negatives are used to produce a positive force or to emphasize the negative.
Just as in math two negatives produce a positive, so in writing two negatives have a positive effect. However, in writing, we prefer to simply state the positive:
It is important to note that some subgroups of English, such Ebonics, contains double negatives as a core part of the grammar. In this case, it is essential to determine your audience and write in such a way that they will understand your meaning.
Phrases and Clauses as Modifiers
Single words aren’t the only thing that can modify. Phrases and clauses can also modify.
- Laughing at its antics, I played with the puppy. (the phrase “Laughing at its antics” describes the speaker in more detail.)
- The coach, who had trained for the Olympics in her youth, always encouraged her athletes. (the clause “who had trained for the Olympics in her youth” tells us more about the coach.)
- People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. (the clause “who live in glass houses” describes which kind of people.)
Comma Rule: Essential vs. Non-Essential Information
Modifiers that are essential to the meaning of the sentence, like the above example with the people in glass houses, do not need any comma punctuation.
However, if the information can be removed from the sentence without changing the sentence’s meaning, the modifier is considered non-essential. Sometimes we call this parenthetical.
Non-essential, parenthetical modifiers of all kinds need to be enclosed on BOTH SIDES by commas.
- Incorrect: Steve, the First Avenger is my favorite superhero. (Unless the person I’m addressing is named Steve)
- Incorrect: Steve the First Avenger, is my favorite superhero. (NEVER correct)
- Correct: Steve, the First Avenger, is my favorite superhero.
If the non-essential modifier is at the beginning of the sentence, it only needs a comma separating it from the main clause of the sentence.
- Always honorable and brave, Steve is my favorite superhero.
Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers
One of the more common issues of modifiers that I encounter is issues of modifier placement. Modifiers need to be placed right next or as close as possible to the words the modify.
Misplaced Modifiers: Modifiers that are placed too far from the word they modify, leading to confusion or nonsensical sentences.
In the first example, it appears at first glance that the cousin is the one crocheting in a rocking chair. Logic reveals that this doesn’t make sense (I’ve never met anyone who crochets loud enough for the action to be audible). We need to put the modifying participial phrase, crocheting in the rocking chair, near to the word it’s modifying, Rai.
The second example places the modifying prepositional phrase, in a teacup, right next to the Queen, making it appear that the Queen is in the teacup. While this would be very entertaining, it seems far more probable that the tea is in the teacup. We need to move the prepositional phrase closer to the tea to make that clear.
Dangling Modifiers: Modifiers whose modify-ee isn’t clear from the context of the sentence.
Sometimes we add a description but forget to include the thing it’s describing. It may seem obvious to us, but our readers will likely be confused. They’ll have to take additional time discerning what you’re talking about, and that will draw them out of your story.
- Laughing, the humorous card was read to me. (It seems that the card is laughing. Logically, we would rather assume that the speaker or the person reading the card were the ones laughing.)
- The palm tree swayed, looking up at the sky. (Palm trees do not have eyes and therefore cannot look.)
- Laughing, Jonathan read the humorous card to me.
- Laughing, I listened as the humorous card was read to me.
- The palm tree swayed while I looked up at the sky.
- Looking up at the sky, Esther saw the palm tree sway.
Much of the time, there are multiple ways to fix both misplaced and dangling modifiers. The best practice is to have the modifier as close as possible to the word it describes and to ask yourself, “Is there any more obvious interpretation to this than what I’m initially seeing?”
*takes a deep breath*
Is that…is that everything?
Wow, but there are a lot of things to consider when discussing modifiers. Perhaps this is why prevailing writing advice encourages a sparing use of descriptions.
If you find yourself using modifiers abundantly, chances are high that you are neglecting stronger nouns and verbs. Nouns and verbs are the backbone of writing. While there is nothing inherently wrong with modifiers, do be intentional in your use (or deletion) of them.
I didn’t go into great depth on types of multi-word modifiers; I’m saving that for our Intermediate post about phrases and clauses. If you want to know more right now, this GrammarBytes! article is a good starting place.
Next month, I aim for us to discuss verbs in more detail.
As always, questions and corrections are highly encouraged! We’re all learning language together here, my friends.
With that, I wish you a fond au revoir. Happy July!
2 thoughts on “Grammar for Authors: Mainly Modifiers”
I absolutely love mixed/misplaced modifiers. Would you like to hear my favorite one ever?
“With six-inch teeth and eight-inch hind claws, biologists think that Tyrannosaurus was a fierce predator.”
Biologists are scary.
Haha, it’s so painful 🙈