A modifier is a word or group of words that describe or limit another word or words. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
The cherry tree is in bloom. The word cherry modifies the word tree. The word cherry is a modifier.
She ran very quickly. The words very quickly modify the word ran.
Modifiers should be placed next to the words they modify. When they don’t, they can cause confusion and are said to be misplaced.
Confusing: The boy barely saw the black kitten with his sunglasses on.
In this sentence the modifier is place after the black kitten.
This means that the kitten, not the boy, is wearing the sunglasses!
Clear: With his sunglasses on, the boy barely saw the black kitten.
Even a one-word modifier can affect meaning.
- Only she knew the answer.
- She knew the only answer.
- She only knew the answer.
- He just went to the office.
- He went just to the office.
When a modifier is placed where it can be interpreted to modify the word on either side, it is called a squinting modifier:
- Smiling often can make you look and feel younger. Does this mean that people who smile often always look and feel younger, or does it mean that when people smile, often it makes them look and and feel younger?
While a misplaced modifier is in the wrong place in a sentence, a dangling modifier does not have a specific reference actually in the sentence. It’s just dangling there.
Confusing: While surfing at Laguna Beach, three whales appeared.
While it’s not likely the whales are surfing, we have no other subject for the modifier to describe. To revise a dangling modifier you must rephrase the original sentence.
Clear: While we were surfing at Laguna Beach, three whales appeared.
Misplaced and dangling modifiers can be difficult to detect since we have a tendency to make sense out of what is really not sensible.
Last night, I saw an elephant in my pajamas. What he was doing in my pajamas, I’ll never know. This is an old Groucho Marx joke.