A modifier is a word or a group of words which describe, limit, or qualify a subject.  There are two kinds of modifiers: nonrestrictive and restrictive.  Nonrestrictive modifiers are not essential or not necessary to the meaning of a sentence while restrictive modifiers are necessary to the meaning of the sentence. Below are some examples of nonrestrictive and restrictive modifiers along with explanations as to why those sentences fit that category.

Nonrestrictive Modifiers

With nonrestrictive modifiers, sometimes it can be hard to judge whether or not the information is truly necessary for that given context. Below are some examples and explanations as to why these sentences contain nonrestrictive modifiers instead of restrictive modifiers. Whenever a nonrestrictive modifier appears in a sentence, it is offset by commas.

Example: My favorite movie, Lord of the Rings, is coming out on Blu-ray this September.

In this case, “Lord of the Rings” is acting as extra detail. The subject of the sentence makes it clear what the movie likely is: naming the movie is more of a confirmation or extra information for those not in the loop.

Example: There are many differences, both large and small, between the Lord of the Rings books and movies.

Since the phrase “many differences” implies that there is a range of differences between the Lord of the Rings books and movies, “both large and small” becomes an unnecessary modifier.

Restrictive Modifiers

Example: Lisa wants to read only Tolkien books.

“Only” is essential because removing it would significantly alter the meaning of the sentence. The point of the sentence is not that Lisa wants to read Tolkien books; the point is that Lisa only wants to read those specific kinds and no other books.

Example: Aragon had a deep seated desire to slay all the orcs at Minas Tirith.

Without the phrase “at Minas Tirith,” the sentence would drastically change to mean all the orcs in existence.

Example: Gandalf needs to talk to the steward who sits in the king’s chair.

In Middle Earth, there are many stewards Gandalf might need to talk to, but he specifically needs to speak to the one that is sitting in the king’s chair.

Common Modifying Issues

When adding modifiers to sentences, sometimes it is unclear what the modifier is meant to specify because of its location or because the subject isn’t explicitly stated. There are two types of errors that are most common—dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers. Dangling modifiers do not refer clearly to the word or phrase they are intended to modify whereas misplaced modifiers are grammatically distanced in the sentence from the subject they modify. Below are some examples of these kinds of errors along with an explanation on how to adjust them.

Dangling Modifiers

Example: Lighting a campfire after dark, my stomach tingled with a sense of foreboding.

Corrected Example: Lighting a campfire after dark, I felt my stomach tingle with a sense of foreboding.

“Lighting a campfire after dark” is the modifier in this case, which is connected to the subject of stomach. Since a stomach cannot light a campfire, this sentence needs to have the subject, or doer of this sentence, more explicitly stated. Adding the subject “I” would correct this mistake.

Misplaced Modifiers

Example: Pippin went to Isengard with his friends around the corner.

Corrected Example: Pippin went around the corner to Isengard with his friends.

In the first example, it is unclear which subject is around the corner. Are Pippin’s friends around the corner or is Isengard? By moving the modifier closer to the subject, it becomes clear that Isengard is around the corner.

***This handout was inspired from John Haslem’s Sentence Pattern and Punctuation handout, who relied
heavily upon the Harbrace College Handbook, 12th edition, for word lists and definitions of grammatical terms.