Modifiers – Definition & How to Use Them Correctly

22.10.22 Language rules Time to read: 4min

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Modifiers are potent tools in academic writing, enhancing your work with detail and specificity. By understanding and applying the language rules associated with these words, phrases, or clauses that function as adjectives or adverbs, you can modify and refine the meaning of your sentences. Moreover, effective use of modifiers can help your arguments stand out, providing a clear pathway for readers to grasp complex academic concepts. Our guide will help you master the use of modifiers.

Modifiers – In a Nutshell

  • Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses, which are used to alter the meaning of a sentence or part of a sentence.
  • They offer the same function as adjectives or adverbs and can be useful for providing additional descriptions or context.
  • Sentences will make sense without a modifier, but a modifier will provide more information.

Definition: Modifiers

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a modifier as “a word or phrase that makes specific the meaning of another word or phrase”.

Essentially, modifiers function as an optional element within a sentence, altering its meaning, or providing additional information. They function in much the same way as an adjective or adverb would.

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The structure of modifiers

A modifier will usually appear directly before or after the word or phrase it is modifying.


  • Susan bought some boots with black laces.
  • Modifying phrase: With black laces

It appears directly after the word “boots”, indicating that the boots are what is being modified.

If a modifier appears at the beginning of a sentence, it will always modify the subject of the sentence.


  • Breathing heavily, while running around the field, John needed a drink.
  • Modifying phrase: Breathing heavily

It modifies the subject of the sentence, “John” rather than the object of the sentence, “the field”.

A modifier must always modify a word or phrase that appears within the same sentence.

Misplaced modifiers

When a modifier appears in a position that does not adhere to the established structure, it can be described as a misplaced modifier. There are two main types of misplaced modifiers.

A dangling modifier is a modifier that does not alter anything within a sentence.


  • Crossing the road, the sun had started to set.

The modifier is “crossing the road”. However, the sentence does not feature a subject. This means who or what was crossing the road is ambiguous. To make this more grammatically sound, it could read as:

  • Crossing the road, I noticed the sun had started to set.

Another misplaced modifier type is a squinting modifier. This is a type of modifier that is positioned so that it is difficult to determine what is being modified.


  • Running around quickly improves fitness.

The modifier is “quickly”, but is it describing the speed of running, or the speed of fitness improvement? Further clarity on this can be provided by restructuring the sentence slightly:

  • Running around will quickly improve fitness.
  • Running around quickly can improve fitness.
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What are the different kinds of modifiers?

A single-word modifier is a modifier made up of just one word. Adjectives are some of the most obvious examples of single-word modifiers, and these can include colors (red cardigan, yellow book), descriptions (beautiful woman, wet floor), and numbers (one burger, two boys).

However, a phrase can also be a modifier, and a good example of this can be seen with descriptions of location.


  • The book on the shelf.
  • The cupboard under the stairs.

A limiting modifier, meanwhile, describes the limits of a noun. Examples of these words include “always”, “never”, “only”, “nearly”, and “just”.


  • The television always makes a buzzing sound.


Modifiers can be identified because they are words or phrases that alter the meaning of a sentence. The sentence should still make sense without them, but their presence offers extra information.

For example, the modifier in “the blue shirt” is the word “blue”. The phrase would make sense without it, but the modifier describes the shirt’s color.

The most commonly known modifiers are adjectives or adverbs. However, a modifier can also be an adjectival phrase, which is a phrase that functions as an adjective, or an adverbial phrase.

Typically, a modifier should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase it is modifying. This usually means it will appear directly before or directly after the part of the sentence being described, or altered.