Grammatical modifier

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In grammar, a modifier is an optional element in phrase structure or clause structure.[1] A modifier is so called because it is said to modify (change the meaning of) another element in the structure, on which it is dependent. Typically the modifier can be removed without affecting the grammar of the sentence. For example, in the English sentence This is a red ball, the adjective red is a modifier, modifying the noun ball. Removal of the modifier would leave This is a ball, which is grammatically correct and equivalent in structure to the original sentence.

Other terms used with a similar meaning are qualifier (the word qualify may be used in the same way as modify in this context), attribute, and adjunct. These concepts are often distinguished from complements and arguments, which may also be considered dependent on another element, but are considered an indispensable part of the structure. For example, in His face became red, the word red might be called a complement or argument of became, rather than a modifier or adjunct, since it cannot be omitted from the sentence.

Ambiguous and dangling modifiers[edit]

Main article: Dangling modifier

Sometimes it is not clear which element of the sentence a modifier is intended to modify. In many cases this is not important, but in some cases it can lead to genuine ambiguity. For example:

  • He painted her sitting on the step.

Here the participial phrase sitting on the step may be intended to modify her (meaning that the painting's subject was sitting on the step), or it may be intended to modify the verb phrase painted her or the whole clause he painted her (or just he), meaning in effect that it was the painter who was sitting on the step.

Sometimes the element which the modifier is intended to modify does not in fact appear in the sentence, or is not in an appropriate position to be associated with that modifier. This is often considered a grammatical or stylistic error. For example:

  • Walking along the road, a vulture loomed overhead.

Here whoever was "walking along the road" is not mentioned in the sentence, so the modifier (walking along the road) has nothing to modify, except a vulture, which is clearly not the intention. Such a case is called a "dangling modifier", or more specifically, in the common case where (as here) the modifier is a participial phrase, a "dangling participle".

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