Modify Your Modifiers

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Hey, y’all! Welcome back. Today I’m talking about modifiers. Modifiers are related to the little critters that sew your clothes together at night so that they’re a little tighter in the morning.

Define It: A modifier is a word or group of words that changes or adds meaning to another word or group of words.

Modifiers are great things…when used correctly.

Three errors can occur when carelessly using modifiers: misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, and redundant modifiers.

The first of these errors, and likely the most common, is the misplaced modifier. The misplaced modifier is a lot like walking into the wrong room while at a hotel that is hosting two conventions: one for science fiction fans and one for exterminators. It’s a room, just not the one you expected.

Define It: A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifier is not close enough in the sentence to whatever is being modified.

Misplaced modifiers often occur when there is extended description or multiple items being described.

Example:

She is going to wear her new shoes and dress with the strap around the ankle.

In this example, the woman is planning to wear new shoes and a new dress. The problem is that the modifier “with the strap around the ankle” should be closer to shoes than to dress; otherwise, it seems like the dress has a strap around the ankle. That would be a very…interesting…dress, don’t you think?

Revision:

She is going to wear her new dress and shoes with the strap around the ankle.

Sometimes moving a modifier can also change the meaning of the sentence. In this case, the sentence still makes sense (unlike the previous example), but the meaning changes, so the reader doesn’t get the message you’re trying to send. This typically occurs with one-word modifiers like only and almost.

Example:

I ate almost all the ice cream.

I almost ate all the ice cream.

Can you see the subtle difference? In the first example, the person did eat some ice cream, quite a bit, actually. But, in the second example, the person did not eat ice cream. The person almost ate it. Moving the one word in the sentence changes the meaning of the sentence, even if it is subtle.

Another type of modifier error is the dangling modifier. A dangling modifier is like showing up at the wrong hotel for the convention. You’re there, but you have nothing to do.

Define It: The dangling modifier occurs when the modifier is in the sentence, but the thing that is supposed to be modified isn’t in the sentence at all!

Sometimes, as writers, we know what we are talking about, but that doesn’t always translate for the reader. (This is why you should have someone else read your work!)

Example:

Having set the alarm, the light was turned out.

In this sentence, we don’t really know who turned out the light. In fact, it sort of sounds like the light set the alarm. (Where can I get one of those?) Also, the example sentence is in passive voice, which Emily talked about here.

Revision:

Having set the alarm, Marsha turned out the light.

In the revision, we know who did both actions: Marsha.

The last error with modifiers is redundant modifiers. Sometimes we try to add a little more detail to our writing, but we end up just repeating ourselves. (Thanks, Mr. Thesaurus.) The redundant modifier is like walking into a room at a convention and then walking back out only to walk back in again.

Define It: A redundant modifier occurs when you have more than one modifier with the same or similar meaning modifying the same word or group of words.

Here are a few examples:

The ice was cold and frigid. (Well yeah…it’s ice.)

The date was set for 6 p.m. in the evening. (That’s generally what p.m. means.)

The night was dark, the sky revealing no light. (Night? Dark? No light? Pretty much the same thing.)

In each of those examples, the modifiers could be cleaned up a bit to make the writing tighter and more impactful.

Sound off in the comments! How are you going to modify your modifiers?

Until next time…

~Melissa~

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5 comments to Modify Your Modifiers

  • Excellent lesson. It’s terribly easy to make these mistakes when we’re submerged in our work.

    My favorite misplaced modifier comes from this headline:

    “Cameron Diaz Encourages Women to Keep Their Pubic Hair in Her New Book”

    Where, exactly, does Diaz want women to place their hair?

    http://www.eonline.com/news/495450/cameron-diaz-encourages-women-to-keep-their-pubic-hair-in-her-new-book

  • I’ve been loving these posts, Melissa. And misplaced modifiers … oh, it’s one of my editing peeves. That I usually phrase with, “Did you mean [this]?” with the modifier in its proper position. 🙂

  • * re-phrase in the track changes comments. Hah. I need more coffee.

  • Oh my goodness! I can only imagine that book as a coffee table conversation starter, much like Madonna’s book in the 90s!

    You both are right. It’s really, really (redundant?) to make those mistakes when you’re in a typing fury trying to get those ideas out! And, your mind switches it sometimes because you know exactly what you meant!

    I’m glad you all are enjoying the posts!

  • “She is going to wear her new shoes and dress with the strap around the ankle.”

    That sounds like a cool dress! 😀

    Yeah, the modifier that’s crawled away is one of my pet peeves.

    As to the redundant variety, two common causes I’ve seen in new writers: 1) unsure they’re getting the point across, so they over-explain by way of doubling descriptives, and 2) the modifier that’s roamed so far afield that to the novice ear it sounds like a whole new one instead of an extra.