Article of the Week

Run-On Sentences

Run-on sentences occur when writers try to combine more than one idea into a single sentence. They cause confusion because readers are not sure when one idea ends and the next one begins. Read our entry and test your knowledge with our quiz!



Modifiers

Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that give further description and detail to the basic, minimal components of a sentence: the subject and action. Unlike appositives, which have to be nouns, modifiers exist in a variety of forms: adjectives, verbs, prepositional phrases, and clauses.  

  1. Introduction
  2. Dangling Modifiers
  3. Misplaced Modifiers

Introduction

Here are some examples of sentences with and without modifiers:                   

Unmodified: Jimmy took a seat. 


This sentence is as basic as basic can be. We are provided the least amount of detail possible – what is being done (the action), and who is doing it (the subject). We know nothing about Jimmy, and we know nothing about how he took a seat.  Let’s look at a sentence in which the same basic action is conveyed and modifiers provide additional relevant details: 

Modified: So nervous he was shaking, Jimmy, waving goodbye to his mother outside, hurriedly took a seat on the rickety, yellow, kindergarten bus.


The overall basics of this story have not changed – we still have Jimmy and he is still taking a seat – but the inclusion of modifiers has described the scene for us. We now are aware of information that the subject and action cannot provide us on our own. Let’s take another look: 

Unmodified: Jess drank coffee 


Again, this unmodified sentence represents the simplest correct way to use the English language. We understand what is going on – Jess drank coffee – but we do not know anything outside of the subject (Jess) and the action (drank coffee). 

Modified: Staring out of the rain-speckled window, Jess carefully drank hot, steaming coffee, contemplating the mysteries of existence. 


See? By using modifiers, so much more detail and information is provided!  Now we know information about the subject (Jess) and the action (drank coffee), all because of modifiers. Clearly, modifiers are a great way to provide detail and description to what would otherwise be basic, boring sentences. However, there are extremely common mistakes that writers make in utilizing modifiers: dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers.

 

Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers occur when the subject of the modifier (what is being modified) is unclear. If you read a sentence and can’t answer the question “who/what is the doer?” you probably have a dangling modifier. Let's look at an example:     

Unfamiliar with using chopsticks, the Chinese food was very hard to eat. 


Who or what is the subject of this sentence? Who exactly is it that is “Unfamiliar with using chopsticks"? As the sentence currently is written, it is impossible to say. Let’s fix it:                   

Unfamiliar with using Chopsticks, we found the Chinese food very hard to eat. 


Now we can definitively say who the subject of this sentence is and who found the Chinese food very hard to eat: we did.  Let’s look at one last example:             

After watching a documentary on TV, working for the CIA seems exciting.


 Who is the subject? Who watched a documentary on TV? Again, we don’t know, so we need to revise: 

After watching a documentary on TV, the college student thinks that working for the CIA seems exciting. 

Now we know! 


Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers occur when it is unclear what part of the sentence is modified. Misplaced modifiers often make it seem as if the wrong word in a sentence is being modified. Let’s look at an example:       

Lost in the messy, disorganized locker, Ron couldn’t find his calculus homework. 

Even if it’s not obvious, this sentence is grammatically incorrect. It is unclear what the modifier in this sentence -  “Lost in the messy disorganized locker,” - is actually modifying. Who or what is “Lost in the messy, disorganized locker”? Based on common sense, we know that Ron himself was not lost in his locker, but based on the organization of the sentence, that is the impression that is given. Because we know that Ron’s homework is what actually is lost in the locker, the sentence needs to be re-arranged so that this subject (homework) is next to it’s modifying phrase. Here is one way we could fix it:                   

Lost in the messy, disorganized locker, Ron’s calculus homework was nowhere to be found. 

The subject of this sentence (Ron’s calculus homework) is now right next to its modifying phrase. It is now clear that the homework, and not Ron, is what was lost in the locker.  Let’s look at another example:               

Thomas found a toy in the sandbox that doesn’t belong to him.

 What doesn’t belong to Thomas? The toy or the sandbox? As the sentence is currently written, it sounds as if the author is telling us that the sandbox doesn’t belong to him, but based on common sense we know that is not the intended meaning. Re-arrange the sentence so the modifier (doesn’t belong to him) is close to the subject (toy):                   

Thomas found a toy that doesn’t belong to him in the sandbox. 

 Much better!