90-Second Editing Lesson: Modifiers
by Writing Workshops Org Admin
A year ago
Consider this passage describing a mother and daughter arguing over a coat:
Brittany cried and made no motion to take the coat her mother held out. She hung limp, and her mama thrust her hands down into the sleeves, pulled it closed, and zipped it.
Question—who put on the coat?
On the one hand, Brittany’s mama is holding it out toward Brittany as if indicating she should put it on. Therefore, she could have shoved Brittany’s hands into the sleeves after Brittany refused to do it herself. However, by the rules of proper grammar, “her hands” should modify the closest subject, which is “her mama.” This indicates Brittany’s mama shoved her own hands into the sleeves. Confused yet?
What is a Modifier?
Too often, writers misplace or dangle their modifiers, confusing—or sometimes amusing—the reader. Modifiers are words or phrases that add description and detail to the subjects, verbs, and objects in a sentence. Ideally, these modifiers are placed as closely as possible to what they are modifying. Groucho Marx gives us an excellent example of when moving a modifier too far away causes it to be attributed to the wrong thing:
While hunting in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got into my pajamas I’ll never know.
Logically, our brain tells us the hunter was in his pajamas. But Groucho used grammar to make a joke by implying the elephant was the one wearing pajamas. When this happens in your novel or nonfiction book, your readers may become confused as to the real details of the scene or story. While there’s a lot to know about modifiers, let’s look at an essential type of modifier—limiting modifiers.
These are restrictive words, such as “only,” “always,” and “just.” When a limiting modifier is misplaced, it can change the meaning of the entire sentence. Try putting the word “only” in different places in this sentence:
She told him she loved him.
You end up with varying interpretations of this sentence depending on where you put “only.” Keep a close eye on your limiting modifiers to ensure they are conveying the meaning you intend. Your readers will thank you for it.