Using Modifiers Effectively:
Modifiers are words or phrases that provide information about either subjects or objects in a sentence. Modifiers can be integral to the meaning of the sentence or can supplement that meaning. A misuse or a lack of modifiers can confuse the reader or inadvertently change the meaning of the sentence itself.
The three main errors made when using modifiers are (1) failing to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive modifiers, (2) misplacing modifiers, and (3) using “dangling” modifiers. A description and example of each kind of error is given below.
Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Modifiers
A restrictive modifier identifies and distinguishes its referent (i.e., what the modifier modifies). A nonrestrictive modifier simply provides additional information.
Here’s an example of a restrictive modifier:
“Joe’s office is under the stairs to the right of the photocopier.”
Here’s an example of a non-restrictive modifier:
“Joe’s office, which is at the bottom of the stairs on the left, is always open.”
A misplaced modifier can change the entire meaning of a sentence. For example, “We did our homework in Weir Hall on geothermal studies,” is fundamentally different from “We did our homework on geothermal studies in Weir Hall.”
A dangling modifier could refer to one of two or more sentence elements, but is not clear which element it refers to. For example: “Trying to solve the problem, the instructions seemed unclear.” This sounds like the instructions are trying to do the problem.