Modifiers

A famous imaginary newspaper headline reads:

MAN BITES DOG!

Let’s see how we might fill out so bare-bones a statement:

The annoyed man finally bit the insolent dog.

Or maybe:

The man living across the street bites his dog when it drools in the goldfish bowl.

Or even:

Last week a Flickin’ Chicken delivery man ironically nibbled the earlobe of a customer’s dog.

The original headline is composed of a bare structural backbone: subject, finite verb, and completer. These functions are still present, of course, in the expanded sentences, but what has been added are various modifiers.

We can look at modifiers in two ways. First, purely in terms of structure: modifiers are “attached” to other functions. For example, in the first expanded sentence annoyed is attached to man, finally is attached to bit, and insolent is attached to dog. In the third expanded sentence, last week is attached to nibbled. The force that makes the attachment is what I’ve been calling “who-what? magnetism”—the mental energy that holds sentence elements together.

Secondly, we can look at modifiers in terms of how they affect (how they modify) the meanings of the words they’re attached to. It’s often said that modifiers “describe” other words, that, in the second expanded example living across the street describes man; his describes dog, and so on. We can say more precisely that modifiers add certain kinds of information to other words. The effect of this information is to limit, or qualify, the range of reference of the modified word. In other words, modifiers narrow down—they make more specific—whatever it is that the modified words refer to. From the bare structural backbone, Man Bites Dog, we can tell who put his teeth into whom. Otherwise, the statement is unlimited: any man could be biting any dog, at any time or place and for any reason. But in the expanded examples, what man, bites, and dog refer to has been limited, made more specific, in various ways. Such is the action of modifying.

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Adding Information

The following list offers examples of the kinds of information that modifiers add to the words they modify. The modifiers are in bold and the words that are being modified are in regular type:

medium pizzas
teeny tiny toes
a moose big as a caboose
SIZE
a wooden leg
plastic food
a marble statue
MATERIAL
come in an hour
the three o’clock crisis
collapse when you’re ready
TIME
an “S” curve
irregular eyebrows
square boxes
SHAPE
bit on the nose
the dog behind the cat
smooching downstairs
LOCATION
pink elephants
dressed in green
purple
passages
COLOR

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Limiting the Area of Reference

Suppose a friend asks you to help her find a book in her library. But she has hundreds of books; which one is she referring to? You’ll need some modifiers:

a large book [This narrows it down by cutting out all small books.]

a large yellow book [This reference is still narrower: relatively few of her books are both large and yellow.]

a large yellow book with a cracked spine [Now the area of reference is very narrow. Could there be even two books like this in your friend's library?]

She wanted the large yellow book with a cracked spine that she uses to press sandwiches.

So by adding information—about size, color, condition, and use—the modifiers have limited the reference of book, from any book to only one possible one.

For another example, suppose we found :

Jill and Jack went.

We’d know that the going took place sometime in the past because of the tense of the finite verb, but nothing else about the action is specified. If, however, we progressively attach modifiers to went, we can see the narrowing or limiting effect again:

Jill and Jack went up the hill.

Early every morning, Jill and Jack went up the hill.

Early every morning, unless cobras were loose, Jill and Jack went up the hill to fetch something or other.

Thus, the area of reference of the action referred to by went becomes more and more limited, more specific, when modifiers—of place (up the hill), of time (every morning), of condition (unless cobras were loose), and of purpose (to fetch something or other)—are attached to the finite verb.

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Words in Context

The reference of words is not limited by modifiers alone. In fact, the only time that words have unlimited reference is when they appear by themselves; that is, when they’re not being used in a sentence. Looking in a dictionary, we see that man can refer, among other things, to a chess piece, and that dog can refer to the metal rack that supports logs in a fireplace. However, we’re not likely to think that Man Bites Dog refers to something that happened in a fireplace during a chess game. The three words functioning together establish a context in which some references make sense and others do not.

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Finding Modifiers in Sentences

It’s primarily through sentence rhythm that we can tell what words modifiers are attached to, what words they modify. Take the following sentence:

A sensible man will seldom nibble a drooling dog

It’s probably clear to you that a and sensible modify man; that a and drooling modify dog; and that seldom modifies the finite-verb phrase will nibble. But whenever you aren’t certain what modifies what, you can use the who-or-what? test to find out. In general, we ask the question after the modifier. The “answer” will be the modified word or phrase. Take the following examples.

Only daffy ducks quack quite quickly.

Only what? Answer: Only daffy ducks
daffy what? Answer: daffy ducks
quite what? Answer: quite quickly
quite quickly what? Answer: quack quite quickly

Little David’s great grandfather has never lost his baby fat.

Little who? Answer: Little David.
Little David’s what? Answer: great grandfather
great what? Answer: grandfather
never what? Answer: never has lost
his what? Answer: his baby fat
baby what? Answer: baby fat

In real life you may never need to test for modifiers in such detail, but whenever you need to use it, the who-or-what? test indicates exactly what word or words are modified.

Sometimes a modifier modifies one word and sometimes more than one. In the second example, daffy modifies just ducks, while only modifies daffy ducks. In the third example, little modifies David’s; great modifies grandfather, and little David’s modifies great grandfather.

Sometimes the what? test works more smoothly if you ask the question in front of the modifier, as in the following examples:

Tomorrow I am levitating in pajamas. [what tomorrow? Answer: am levitating; [what in pajamas? Answer: am levitating.]

She painted the elephant this morning. [what this morning? Answer: painted]

The birds are migrating all over the place. [what all over the place? Answer: are migrating]

Not that anyone needs to agonize over which side of the word to place the question. If placing it before a modifier doesn’t show the attachment, try asking after the modifier. When you get the question in the right place, you’ll feel the answer like the “thunk” of the arrow hitting its target. Still, testing for a function works only after you have read a sentence for its sentence rhythm and meaning.

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“Unnoticed” Modifiers

The most frequently used modifiers are certain “little,” usually unstressed structural markers. They’re easy to overlook, but they have a crucial effect on the reference of the words and phrases they modify (I’ve given the technical names for these, but the names aren’t important in themselves):

1. A (an before most vowels): A indicates that one thing or person is being referred to, but not a definite, specified one. If we read, A duck bit a mailman, we’d know that there was one of each but not which particular ones. (The technical name for this modifier is indefinite article.)

2. The: The indicates that a certain specific, definite thing or things is being referred to (its technical name is definite article). Its use indicates that the particular, specific men and dogs have already been identified, as in the second half of the following example:

A man saw a dog tap dancing in an insulting manner, so the man bit the dog.

3. “Pointing-out” modifiers (called demonstratives) have the effect of pointing, as with a finger, to the words they modify: This person (right here); these people (handing you a list); that wolf (over there); those ducks (way over there); and so on.

4. Possessive pronouns specify ownership or “belonging to”: my fleas, her friends; your secret; their wolves, and so on.

5. Question words: Many of the words we use to ask questions are modifiers in the question sentence:

What color are you painting your elephant? [What modifies color.]

Which wolf was howling? [Which modifies wolf.]

Why did Jack fall down? [Why modifies did fall.]

When was he tickled? [When modifies was tickled.]

6. Negatives: These limit the reference, so to speak, to “zero,” so that the thing or action doesn’t exist or didn’t happen: there was no party; he did not bite; she never kisses frogs.

Download practice sentences for Modifiers.

–> Continue on to Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs.

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