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Write Clearly: Grammar

Note about this guide

In this guide, bold font and parentheses are used to draw attention to modifiers. Screen Reader Users: Please set your program's punctuation level to 'most' or 'all' in order to hear the content in parentheses.

What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that provides description.

1. Always place modifiers as close as possible to the words they modify.

When you place modifiers too far away from the words that they modify, you change the meaning of the sentence, creating what is called a misplaced modifier error.

Examples:

  • Confusing: The supervisor told me they needed someone who could type badly (modifier).
    • Is the supervisor's need urgent, or does the supervisor need someone who struggles with typing?
  • Better: The supervisor told me they badly needed someone who could type.
  • Confusing: The mouse was found by a farmer lying (modifier) in the field.
    • Who was lying in the field, the mouse or the farmer?
  • Better: The mouse lying in the field was found by a farmer.
  • Or: A farmer found the mouse lying in the field.

2. A modifier at the beginning of the sentence must modify the subject of the sentence.

If you use a modifier at the beginning of your sentence to modify a word other than the subject of your sentence, you create a misplaced modifier error.

Example:

  • Confusing: Wearing (modifier) high boots, the snake failed to injure the supervisor.
    • Is the snake wearing high boots?
  • Better: Wearing high boots, the supervisor was protected from the snake.
  • Or: Because the supervisor was wearing high boots, the snake did not injure her.

3. Your modifier must modify a word or phrase that is included in your sentence.

If you do not include this word or phrase in your sentence, you create a dangling modifier error.

Example:

  • Confusing: While conducting (modifier) a survey of cetaceans in the western North Atlantic, a dead dolphin was spotted a few miles away from an oil spill.
    • Was the dolphin conducting the survey?
  • Better: While conducting a survey of cetaceans in the western North Atlantic, researchers spotted a dead dolphin a few miles away from an oil spill.

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