Grammar: Modifiers

 

Modifiers are words or expressions that describe or qualify others. They can be as short as one word –

      the old house (the adjective old modifies house)

      a lightly boiled egg (the adverb lightly modifies boiled)

      an art critic (the noun-adjective art modifies critic)

or they may comprise phrases and clauses –

      We do not plan to go on holiday this year, although Greece looks rather tempting.

      Looking out of the window, I saw a fox run across the garden.

      She lived in a flat that overlooked the bay.

The principal danger with modifiers is misplacement, that is, their incorrect or ambiguous positioning in sentences. Misplaced modifiers are said to
squint (look in more than one direction) when the words or expressions they mean to modify are unclear and to dangle when there is no word or
expression that they can (or can plausibly) modify. Let us deal with each in turn.

 

Squinting Modifiers

Among the most notorious squinting modifiers are the adverbs only, frequently and often. Most people have a tendency to use these words as early
as possible in their sentences, particularly in speech, rather than place them next to the word or words they are meant to modify –

      James only likes beer.

No one versed in the English language could really misunderstand this sentence, but the position of only means that it is actually modifying the verb
likes rather than the intended noun beer.
 It is this kind of technical error that provides the opportunity for a certain kind of humour –

      ‘James only likes beer.’
      ‘Really? I’d have thought he was inordinately fond of it.’

Or again –

      ‘He only died last week.’1
      ‘Thank goodness nothing more serious happened to him.’

The corrected sentences, of course, are  

      James likes only beer.

      He died only last week.

But in writing, where the reader has no opportunity to seek clarification, squinting modifiers can create real confusion –

      People who exercise often live longer.

Here, the adverb often is squinting at both exercise and live longer, such that we cannot be sure what the sentence means. If the word is meant to
modify exercise, then it needs to be repositioned –

      People who often exercise live longer.

If it is meant to modify live longer, then the sentence needs recasting –

      People who exercise will often live longer.

To take another example – 

      The situation will only be alleviated by an immediate pay-offer.2

Does this mean that an immediate pay offer will do no more than alleviate the situation, or that the situation will be alleviated only by an immediate
pay offer?

 

Dangling Modifiers

Modifiers squint when there is more than one word or expression that they could be modifying; they dangle when there is nothing to modify, unless
it is something preposterous –

      When camping in winter, thick woollen socks are recommended.

Here, the modifying clause when camping in winter dangles; it has nothing to modify except thick woollen socks. But since it is usually people
rather than socks that go camping, the sentence strictly needs a subject –

      When camping in winter, you (or people) are recommended to wear
      thick woollen socks.

Better still, we could recast the sentence –

      Winter campers are recommended to wear thick woollen socks.

Note the similar absurdities in these examples –

      Having reached the finishing line, the crowd cheered him wildly. (The
      crowd reached the finishing line.)

      My time in school passed slowly, day dreaming and staring at the playing
      fields through the lancet windows. 
(My time was day dreaming.)

      Creeping stealthily down the staircase, his eyes caught sight of a dark
      figure standing in the hall.
(His eyes were creeping down the staircase.)

 

Blunders

We need not be overly concerned with misplaced modifiers because context usually comes to the rescue. On the page, however, it is wise to be
vigilant for the reasons we have seen: firstly, to avoid cases of real ambiguity; and secondly, to prevent us 
making fools of ourselves –

      •  We found some beautiful bluebells strolling along the lane

      •  Woman finds long lost twin after twenty-six years in supermarket
         queue

      •  Sitting in a pushchair and shaking a rattle, my grandfather used to
         take me through the park on Sunday mornings

      •  Caroline bought a new toothbrush for her daughter with genuine hog’s
         hair

      •  Lying on a pile of garden compost, Mr Jackson found his missing
         trowel

      •  The suspect was described as between thirty and thirty-five years old,
         5’ 10” tall with spectacles weighing approximately thirteen stone

      •  This insecticide is guaranteed to kill all household bugs for up to three
         months

      •  For sale: Mixing bowl for professional cook with large round bottom.
         Ideal for beating

      •  The salesman packed the shoes for the customer in a plastic bag

      •  She talked for over half an hour about her grandmothers funeral in
         McDonalds

      •  The patient was referred to a psychiatrist with severe emotional
         problems

      •  He said it was his ambition to run the London Marathon after 
         breaking both his legs in a car crash

      •  Far too big and with overly thick legs, Mrs Johnson decided not to
         buy the coffee table

      •  You are welcome to visit the cemetery where internationally famous
         people are buried every weekday except Thursday

      •  We saw several alligators on holiday in Florida

      •  Pupils’ hair is examined every term. If lice are found, they are
         immediately sent home

      •  Penelope Sanderson recently gave birth to her third child called
         William

      •  We bought a Hewlett Packard PC from the dealer with an Orange
         dongle

      •  The woman you need to talk to is standing by the security guard in a
         floral skirt

      •  After letting out a bang and discharging thick black smoke, Mrs
         Harris stopped the car and apologised to her passenger

      •  I saw a rat sorting out my coloured rubbish bags

      •  He had a brother who could speak Italian in Basingstoke

      •  Mrs Wilson thanked the vicar for all his concern after losing her 
         husband

      •  Since the foot-and-mouth crisis, you don’t see many sheep driving 
         through the Brecon Beacons

 

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1 Example by David Crystal, Who Cares About English Usage?, Penguin Books, London, 1977, p. 21
2 Ibid. p. 21