Lesson Eight

Using Modifiers

In English grammar, “modification” refers to the meaning that one or more words attach to another word or group of words. For example, I can write “They accepted our plan” or “They accepted our business plan.” In the second sentence, the word “business” modifies, or focuses the meaning of, the “plan” I’m referring to. I can focus further, of course: “They accepted the business plan that we proposed last night.” Now I’ve told you that the plan I’m referring to is a “business” one, and one “that we proposed last night.” The word “plan” appears with a single modifying word (an adjective) on the left and an entire modifying clause (a restrictive, adjectival clause) on the right. Each modifying element reaches out to the noun “plan” to qualify (modify) the meaning of the word. One modifier reaches immediately forward to do its job, and the other reaches immediately back. We can understand the meaning of the sentence only by understanding its patterns of word groups and modifications. Grammarians call these groupings and patterns of modification the syntax of the sentence–literally, the way the elements of a sentence are “arranged together.” Unlike some other languages, English depends heavily upon word order. Consider, for example, the different meanings that can be created when we shift the position of a single word Newt called Hillary a snitch in private.

1. Only Newt called Hillary a snitch in private. 2. Newt only called Hillary a snitch in private. 3. Newt called only Hillary a snitch in private. 4. Newt called Hillary only a snitch in private. 5. Newt called Hillary a snitch only in private. 6. Newt called Hillary a snitch in private only.

In fairly simple sentences, modifying words and phrases are usually placed immediately before the word(s) they modify. That’s why we understand sentence #1 above to indicate that Newt was the only one calling Hillary a snitch in private, and sentence #3 to mean that Hillary was the only one to whom he attached that name in private. It’s not quite that simple, of course, as my earlier “business plan” sentence demonstrated. Variations #5 and #6 show that “only” could modify “in private” either by reaching forward (in #5) or backward (in #6). Further, we recognize that our voice inflections can modify the meanings of the sentences, as well. For example, we understand from sentence #4 that Newt’s offense was not really very serious (he didn’t call Hillary something terrible, like “shameless, lying liberal”; he called her only a snitch). But we would understand essentially the same thing from sentence #2 if a speaker were to inflect his voice something like this: “Newt only called Hillary a snitch in private!” This doesn’t cut across my point, though: clearly, the vocal inflection, or its representation typographically, is just another way of getting the word “only” up close to “snitch” so that it can modify that word. One way or another, you’ve got to write, and speak, in such a way that your audience can easily perceive what modifies what in your communications. When you don’t do that, people get annoyed and (often) confused. For instance, you’ve heard the term “dangling modifier.” Here’s an example of one: Concerned about the possibility of contamination, the beakers were sterilized. The initial phrase is looking for a subject to modify, so it latches on to the first one to come along: “beakers.” But wait; beakers don’t feel concern,

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people do. What we meant was something like this: Concerned about the possibility of contamination, researchers sterilized the beakers. In our revision, we’ve provided an appropriate subject, “researchers,” for the previously dangling modifier to hook on to. (Note that our decision to use active voice was key in placing that subject where it could get properly modified!) Here’s a similar modification problem: the squinting modifier, a modifier that can look either forward or backward to modify something: Taking antibiotics too frequently weakens the body’s own immune efforts. The adverbial phrase “too frequently” could reach back to modify the “taking” verb phrase, or forward to modify the “weakens” verb phrase. A good writer will clear up the ambiguity by writing either something like this: When we take antibiotics too frequently, we weaken the body’s own immune efforts. or like this: Taking antibiotics weakens the body’s own immune efforts too frequently. In my second revision, I simply shoved “too frequently” out to the end of the sentence so that its modifying powers couldn’t reach back any further than the “weakens” verb. But my first revision was a little more complex: I created a pattern of modification: “When we take X, we weaken Y.” It’s a basic pattern you should recognize after wading through unit 6. Parallelism. Modifiers can be misplaced in all sorts of ways. Some misplacements are serious, confusing the reader. Others are less serious but do a little damage to your reputation as a master of style. Still other misplacements have become so common in American English that they are no longer recognized as stylistic mistakes. For example, Captain Picard tells us that the mission of the starship Enterprise is “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” But if Star Trek: The Next Generation had been made primarily for a British audience, Picard likely would have said, “boldly to go where no one has gone before.” That’s because Britons regard splitting an infinitive (like “to go”) as a stylistic error. Americans no longer do. View Worksheet.