Saturday, 22 October 2011

Modifiers, Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Most people won’t have heard about modifiers, intensifiers or qualifiers, but each one has a distinct meaning within writing and the use of each one affects the quality of writing in different ways.

In Part 1 we’ll look at Modifiers; while in Part 2, we we’ll look at Intensifiers and in Part 3 we’ll look at Qualifiers.

A modifier is self-explanatory; it modifies words or phrases and makes the meaning more specific within a sentence. If used carefully, well-placed modifiers will allow a writer to be a little more descriptive. Badly constructed modifiers, however, will make sentences ambiguous and unintentionally amusing and will also weaken sentence structures.

There two types of modifiers that writers need to understand - adjectives and adverbs.  Adjectives modify (or describe) nouns or pronouns, and adverbs modify (or describe) verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.

When constructing sentences, the general principle is that you should place modifiers as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies.

For instance, the word spotty is the modifier in the phrase ‘the spotty dog’.
The word quickly is the modifier in the phrase ‘he quickly arrived’.
The word slowly is the modifier in the phrase ‘she slowly sat down.’

‘A cat’ is a simple enough sentence, but modified it can become a ‘black cat’ or a ‘fat cat’ or a ‘mangy cat’ etc. These are examples of adjectives modifying a noun i.e. ‘cat’.

Adverbs can modify verbs, so when constructing a sentence like ‘John ran down the stairs,’ you can modify the verb to: ‘John ran quickly down the stairs.’

Depending on the meaning you want to convey, modifiers can be useful, but they are subject to inadvertent misuse. Look at the construction of these two sentences - they mean different things:

He ate only fruit.
He only ate fruit.

In the first sentence, ‘He ate only fruit’. It means that the character ate nothing but fruit - no meat or vegetables or anything else for that matter.

In the second sentence, ‘He only ate fruit’, means that the character ate just fruit. He didn’t do anything like prepare, cut or cook the fruit. He merely ate the fruit.

Although the two sentences are very similar, they express different meanings.

Using modifiers correctly is easy when you keep them as close as possible to the thing they are modifying.

Here's another example of two similar sentences with very different meanings:

She almost failed every exam.
She failed almost every exam.

The first sentence ‘She almost failed every exam’ means that despite her reservations, she managed to pass all her exams.

The second sentence ‘She failed almost every exam’ means that she passed only a few exams and failed the rest.

The placement of modifiers is critical if you want to express the correct meaning.

Dangling Modifiers

As with dangling participles, writers should also avoid using dangling modifiers wherever possible because they can cause ambiguity and they can also make the sentence weak. For example:

Leaning on the balcony, the dogs barked loudly.

The way the sentence is written, it appears that the dogs are balancing on the balcony and barking. This is because they are the only subject present in the sentence and therefore it causes ambiguity if this is not the actual meaning you wanted to portray.

To avoid the dangling participle, the sentence should be clearer:

As John leaned on the balcony, the dogs barked loudly.

Now the subject, John, makes the sentence much better by removing the participle phrase ‘leaning on the balcony’ at the beginning of the sentence.

Here are some more examples of dangling modifiers:

The sandpaper is the best way to get results. Rubbing on the bottom, the stone produces a shine.

Rounding the corner, the moon glowed bright.

Rubbing stones on bottoms? And since when did the moon start taking a stroll around the corner? These unintended meanings can be amusing, but they are grammatically incorrect because the words ‘rubbing’ and ‘rounding’ dangle in the air without any meaning. This is a dangling participle.

They are better like this:

The sandpaper is the best way to get results. The stone produces a shine when rubbed on the bottom of the sandpaper.

As she rounded the corner, she noticed the moon glowed bright.

Now both sentences make sense, nothing dangles in mid air. In the first sentence, the reader understands what rubbing the sandpaper will do. In the second sentence, the reader knows that the subject sees the moon as she moves around the corner. There is no ambiguity and the both subjects are clear within the sentences.

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers happen when some words sometimes end up next to the wrong word and thus change the intended meaning. This causes yet more amusing ambiguity.

I saw the moon poking through the curtains.

‘Poking through the curtain’ is misplaced because the intended meaning of the narrator looking through the curtains and seeing the moon is changed by the placement of the modifier, which in turn makes it look as though the moon is poking the curtains.

The correct way is: ‘I looked through the curtains and saw the glow of the moon poking through.’

A famous example of this humorous effect comes from the 1930 film Animal Crackers, with Groucho Marx as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding:

‘One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas I'll never know.’

Remember that the intended meaning can be misinterpreted if the sentence isn’t clearly written.

Let’s take a typical simple sentence like ‘Tracy picked up the knife’ and modify it.

Dependable Tracy Evans picked up the knife gently because she was very careful about sharp implements, but then she quickly dropped it, coughing with fear when she saw the blood on the blade...

Modifiers used within the sentence:

Adjective: Dependable
Adverb phrase: picked up the knife gently.
Adverb in adjective phrase: very careful.
Adverb: quickly
Participle phrase: coughing with fear

This is an extreme example showing most modifiers in one sentence, but it gives you an idea where they should be placed. Used carefully, modifiers help to bolster the narrative, but it’s wise to consider their careful construction to avoid amusing ambiguity and sentence weakness. Not only that, but gaining a little more understanding of them will help weed out the obvious incorrectly placed modifiers or dangling modifiers in your writing.  And the general rule still applies: although not totally unavoidable, where possible, cut down on the adverbs and adjectives and limit them within your narrative.

Next week: Part 2 - Intensifiers

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