A modifier can be an adjective, an adverb, or a phrase or clause acting as an adjective or adverb In every case, the basic principle is the same: the modifier adds information to another element in the sentence.
In this chapter, you will begin by working with single-word modifiers -- adjectives and adverbs -- but the information here will also apply to phrases and clauses which act as modifiers.
Written by Frances Peck
Using Adverbs and Adjectives
Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and sometimes clauses and whole sentences. Adjectives are words that modify nouns and pronouns. Be careful not to use an adjective where you need an adverb. Consider the following sentences, for instance:
- [WRONG] Once the test was over, Sharon walked slow out of the classroom.
- [RIGHT] Once the test was over, Sharon walked slowly out of the classroom.
The sentence needs an adverb, not an adjective, to modify the verb "walked."
- [WRONG] We tried real hard to get the muffin mixture perfect.
- [RIGHT] We tried really hard to get the muffin mixture perfect.
The sentence needs an adverb, not an adjective, to modify the adjective "hard." (Note that "really" is an informal substitute for "very", and you should avoid in in formal essays.)Using "good," "bad," "well," and "badly."
You might also note the distinctions between "good" and "bad" (which are adjectives) and "well" and "badly" (which are adverbs):
- Shelley plays the piano well and the drums badly.
- The actor's performance was good even though he felt bad that night.
"Well" is an adjective only when it refers to health or condition:
- She protested that she was well enough to start playing sports again.
In the same vein, remember that adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. Do not mistakenly use an adverb to modify these parts of speech.
For example, after a linking verb you may be tempted to use an adverb instead of an adjective. You will recall that the linking verb is a special kind of verb because it links its subject to a subject complement. A subject complement can be either a noun (renaming the subject) or a modifier (describing the subject). When it is a modifier it must be an adjective because it describes the subject (always a noun or pronoun). It does not modify the linking verb itself and should therefore not be an adverb:
- [WRONG] We felt badly about having caused the accident
- [RIGHT] We felt bad about having caused the accident.
The conjunctive adverb is a special kind of adverb that often serves as a transition between two independent clauses in a sentence. Some common conjunctive adverbs are "therefore," "however," "moreover," "nevertheless," "consequently," and "furthermore." When using a conjunctive adverb at the beginning of the second independent clause, be sure to precede it with a semicolon not a comma.
- My roommate usually listens to rock music; however, he also likes John Coltrane and several other jazz musicians.
Written by Frances Peck
Using the Comparative and Superlative
You should use the comparative form of an adjective or adverb to compare exactly two things. You can form the comparative by adding the suffix "-er" to the modifier (for some short words) or by using the word "more" with the modifier:
- Of the two designs, the architect is convinced that the city will select the more experimental one. (comparing two designs)
- Now that it is March, the days are getting longer. (longer now than before)
You should use the superlative form to compare three or more things. You can form the superlative by adding the suffix "-est" to the modifier (for some short words) or by using the word "most" with the modifier:
- This is definitely the smartest, wittiest, most imaginative comic strip I have ever seen. (implying that I have seen more than two)
Note: if you are not certain, you should check a dictionary to see which words take use "more" and "most" and which words take the suffixes "-er" and "-est."Common Problems with the Comparative and Superlative
There are certain modifiers which you cannot logically use in the comparative and superlative forms. Adjectives like "perfect" and "unique," for instance, express absolute conditions and do not allow for degrees of comparison. Something cannot be more perfect than another thing: it is either perfect or not perfect.
You should also avoid using a double comparison -- that is, using both a suffix and an adverb to indicate the comparative or superlative:
- [WRONG] I am convinced that my poodle is more smarter than your dachshund.
- [WRONG] Laurel and Hardy are the most funniest slapstick comedians in film history.
- [RIGHT] I am convinced that my poodle is smarter than your dachshund.
- [RIGHT] Laurel and Hardy are the funniest slapstick comedians in film history.
Similarly, although the double negative -- the use of two negative words together for a single negative idea -- is common in speech and has a long history in the English language, you should avoid using it in formal writing:
- [WRONG] We decided there wasn't no point in pursuing our research further.
- [WRONG] I can't get no satisfaction.
- [RIGHT] We decided there wasn't any point in pursuing our research further. OR We decided there was no point in pursuing our research further.
- [RIGHT] I can't get any satisfaction. OR I can get no satisfaction.
Double negatives involving "not" and "no" are fairly easy to spot and fix. However, some other adverbs -- for example, "hardly," "scarcely," "barely" -- imply the negative, and you should not use them with another negative:
- [WRONG] Even though he has lived in Toronto for four years, he does not have hardly any friends there.
- [RIGHT] Even though he has lived in Toronto for four years, he has hardly any friends there. OR Even though he has lived in Toronto for four years, he does not have many friends there.
Written by Frances Peck
Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
You have a certain amount of freedom in deciding where to place your modifiers in a sentence:
- We rowed the boat vigorously.
- We vigorously rowed the boat.
- Vigorously we rowed the boat.
However, you must be careful to avoid misplaced modifiers -- modifiers that are positioned so that they appear to modify the wrong thing.
In fact, you can improve your writing quite a bit by paying attention to basic problems like misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers.Misplaced Words
In general, you should place single-word modifiers near the word or words they modify, especially when a reader might think that they modify something different in the sentence. Consider the following sentence:
- [WRONG] After our conversation lessons, we could understand the Spanish spoken by our visitors from Madrid easily.
Do we understand the Spanish easily, or do the visitors speak it easily? This revision eliminates the confusion:
- [RIGHT] We could easily understand the Spanish spoken by our visitors from Madrid.
It is particularly important to be careful about where you put limiting modifiers. These are words like "almost," "hardly," "nearly," "just," "only," "merely," and so on. Many writers regularly misplace these modifiers. You can accidentally change the entire meaning of a sentence if you place these modifiers next to the wrong word:
- [WRONG] Randy has nearly annoyed every professor he has had. (he hasn't "nearly annoyed" them)
- [WRONG] We almost ate all of the Thanksgiving turkey. (we didn't "almost eat" it)
- [RIGHT] Randy has annoyed nearly every professor he has had.
- [RIGHT] We ate almost all of the Thanksgiving turkey.
It is important that you place the modifying phrase or clause as close as possible to the word or words it modifies:
- [WRONG] By accident, he poked the little girl with his finger in the eye.
- [WRONG] I heard that my roommate intended to throw a surprise party for me while I was outside her bedroom window.
- [WRONG] After the wedding, Ian told us at his stag party that he would start behaving like a responsible adult.
- [RIGHT] By accident, he poked the little girl in the eye with his finger.
- [RIGHT] While I was outside her bedroom window, I heard that my roommate intended to throw a surprise party for me.
- [RIGHT] Ian told us at his stag party that he would start behaving like a responsible adult after the wedding.
A squinting modifier is an ambiguously placed modifier that can modify either the word before it or the word after it. In other words, it is "squinting" in both directions at the same time:
- [WRONG] Defining your terms clearly strengthens your argument. (does defining "clearly strengthen" or does "defining clearly" strengthen?)
- [RIGHT] Defining your terms will clearly strengthen your argument. OR A clear definition of your terms strengthens your argument.
The infinitive form of the verb consists of the word "to" followed by the base form of the verb: "to be," "to serve," "to chop," etc. Inserting a word or words between the "to" and the verb of an infinitive creates what is known as a split infinitive. Prescriptive grammarians, who knew Latin grammar better than English, once decreed that a split infinitive was an error, but now it is growing increasingly acceptable even in formal writing. Nevertheless, some careful writers still prefer to avoid splitting infinitives altogether.
In general, you should avoid placing long, disruptive modifiers between the "to" and the verb of an infinitive. However, you must use your judgement when it comes to single-word modifiers. Sometimes a sentence becomes awkward if a single-word modifier is placed anywhere but between the elements of the infinitive:
- [WRONG] The marketing team voted to, before they launched the new software, run an anticipatory ad campaign. (disruptive -- the infinitive should not be split)
- [RIGHT] The marketing team voted to run an anticipatory ad campaign before they launched the new software.
The dangling modifier, a persistent and frequent grammatical problem in writing, is often (though not always) located at the beginning of a sentence. A dangling modifier is usually a phrase or an elliptical clause -- a dependent clause whose subject and verb are implied rather than expressed -- that functions as an adjective but does not modify any specific word in the sentence, or (worse) modifies the wrong word. Consider the following example:
- Raised in Nova Scotia, it is natural to miss the smell of the sea.
The introductory phrase in the above sentence looks as if it is meant to modify a person or persons, but no one is mentioned in the sentence. Such introductory adjective phrases, because of their position, automatically modify the first noun or pronoun that follows the phrase -- in this case, "it." The connection in this case is illogical because "it" was not raised in Nova Scotia. You could revise the sentence in a number of ways:
- For a person raised in Nova Scotia, it is natural to miss the smell of the sea. (the phrase no longer functions as an adjective)
- Raised in Nova Scotia, I often miss the smell of the sea. (the phrase functions as an adjective but now automatically modifies "I," a logical connection)
A dangling modifier can also appear when you place an elliptical clause improperly:
- Although nearly finished, we left the play early because we were worried about our sick cat.
The way this sentence is structured, the clause "Although nearly finished" illogically modifies "we," the pronoun directly following the clause. An easy way to rectify the problem is to re-insert the subject and verb that are understood in the elliptical clause:
- Although the play was nearly finished, we left early because we were worried about our sick cat.
Written by Frances Peck