One-word Modifiers:

Modifiers are those words or groups of words that "modify" or customize something.  They make it special, unique, different from the ordinary, just like you do when you modify your car. 
Ordinary:  car Modified:  red car, fast car, huge car, or my car
Ordinary:  song Modified:  inspiring song, rock song, loud song, or disgusting song
Ordinary:  idea Modified:  good idea, wonderful idea, awful idea, or stupid idea

Usually in English if a modifier is a single word (like an adjective), it will go IN FRONT of whatever it modifies.  Thus you have black car, old lady, pretty girl, heavy book, or heavenly view.  You also can have quickly skitter, softly spoke, or hurriedly retreat.  You can even pile the single word modifiers up:  ugly black car, feisty little old lady, teenage mutant ninja turtles.  (Each of these modifiers by itself modifies the thing.  The lady is little, for example, as well as feisty and old.)   On the other hand, in a phrase like light blue Honda, light modifies blue.

There are a couple of modifiers that can conceivably go in front of any word in a sentence.  Only is one of those.  Try only out in front of each word in the following sentence and see how it changes or modifies the meaning of the sentence.

Krista hugged her sister.

  • Only Krista hugged her sister.  The extra, special meaning that only adds to this sentence is no one else hugged Krista's sister.
  • Krista only hugged her sister.  This means that Krista didn't do anything else; she didn't kiss her sister, for example; she just hugged her.
  • Krista hugged only her sister.  This means Krista hugged her sister, but no one else.
  • Krista hugged her only sister.  This means Krista has one sister.

Only modifies the sentence by giving it extra meaning from the plain old ordinary sentence.  Where it goes tells us what that special meaning is. 

Many other languages connect modifier to the word it's modifying, either by literally jamming them together into one word, or by giving them endings to match each other.  English, however, tells you this by the LOCATION of the modifier.  (As they say in business, "Location, location, location.") 

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Modifiers with more than one word:
Modifiers that contain more than one word go right after the thing they modify. 
Ordinary:  house Modified: house that Jack built
Ordinary:  butterfly Modified: butterfly with blue and yellow spots on its wings
Ordinary:  speech Modified:  speech which brought everyone in the audience to tears

One more little rule will help before we start on the problems people have with modifiers.

Sometimes, a multiple-word modifier (what I would call crud) begins a sentence.  If that happens, the modifier is modifying the subject.  Lots of them are participial phrases (remember participles are PART of a verb, and as such aren't really the verb.  In this case they are being used as adjectives.)

Tipping his hat back, the rancher surveyed his cattle.  This sentence says the rancher surveyed his cattle.  But the extra information that the modifier conveys is that the rancher was tipping his hat back as he surveyed the cattle.
Having had this experience, I didn't want try it again.  Ordinary info -- I didn't want to try it again.  Extra info or modification -- I had this experience before.
Knowing the answer would be no, my son didn't even ask.  Ordinary info -- my son didn't ask.  Extra info or modification -- My son knew the answer would be no.

Shocked by the report of the gun, the jackrabbit froze.  Extra -- The jackrabbit was shocked.
Weak from thirst, the tourist staggered across the desert.  Extra -- The tourist was weak from thirst.
As a smart-aleck freshman, my brother immediately got into trouble with his teachers.  Extra -- My brother was a smart-aleck freshman.


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Modifier problems:
There are two modifier problems:  dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers.


Dangling modifiers:
These modifiers are the ones that don't have anything to modify!  (It's like those pronouns without an antecedent.)  Nearly all of them are modifiers that begin a sentence but aren't really intended to modify the subject in the sentence.

Here are some examples:

  • As a baby, my father died in combat.   What?  Your father died when he was a baby?  (You see, the sentence doesn't contain whoever really was a baby when the father died.)
  • Bending down to pick up a quarter, the man's pants ripped.  The man's pants bent down to pick up a quarter?  (The pants are the subject.  The man doesn't exist per se in this sentence.)
  • Throwing a rock, the stray dog ran.  What?  The dog threw a rock at the same time as it ran?

The best solution to this problem is to add whoever or whatever the modifier is intended to modify.

  • When I was a baby, my father died in combat.
  • When the man bent down to pick up a quarter, his pants ripped.
  • As the boy threw a rock, the stray dog ran.

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Misplaced modifiers:
Remember the location issue?  Sometimes information gets mixed up so that the modifier isn't next to whatever it's supposed to modify.  Want examples?
  • Stopping to sniff the fire hydrant, the animal control officer caught the dog.  This sounds like the animal control officer stopped to sniff the fire hydrant.
  • The beauty pageant queen was escorted to the stage by a young man, wearing a full evening gown.
  • The bumblebee stung my neighbor with huge wings.
  • He tripped and hit the goldfish bowl with his head, which fortunately was empty.
  • Someone ran into a moose on a motorcycle crossing the highway.

 The solution here is to move the modifier so that it's right AFTER (or in the case of the subject, right BEFORE) the word it modifies.  CORRECTED SENTENCES --

  • The animal control officer caught the dog stopping to sniff the fire hydrant.
  • Wearing a full evening gown, the beauty pageant queen was escorted to the stage by a young man.
  • The bumblebee with huge wings stung my neighbor.
  • He tripped and hit the goldfish bowl, which fortunately was empty, with his head.
  • Someone on a motorcycle ran into a moose crossing the highway.

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This page was last updated, Tuesday, May 18, 2010, by Connie Gulick.