Grammar Guide: Modifiers

Hints and resources for grammar remediation that won't leave you bogged down in jargon.

By Elijah Ammen

Student completing a worksheet

This is part four of a six-part series that focuses on various grammar topics. Check the Lesson Planet Community each Wednesday for the next installment.

Modifiers are the key to nuance in language. They add degrees, shades, and qualifications to meaning. They elevate language from a utilitarian tool to an art form. They are also difficult to teach because so many parts of speech can function as modifiers. In younger grades, we simplify it to adjectives and adverbs, but by high school the floodgates are open and we reveal to the kids that we were lying all along. You want to use an entire phrase or clause as a modifier? Go ahead! Verbals? Why not! Use a noun as a modifier? Go for it!

The difficulty with modifiers is that they don't stand in isolation. With nouns and verbs we can ask simple questions like, "is this a person, place, or thing?" or "is this an action or state of being?" Modifiers require taking a step back and looking at meaning and intent. They also require a solid grasp of the other sentence parts. There's no use teaching modifiers if your learners don't have a grasp of what they are modifying.

Here are the key points to remember when teaching modifiers. This is by no means an exhaustive grammar resource, or even an outline for how to teach the concepts for the first time. You'll find hints for the teaching most important information and resources for instruction and remediation. These are great resources for pull-out teachers or for bellringers and mini-lessons.

Helpful Hints for Modifiers

Adjectives and Adverbs: The bread and butter of the modifier world. Keep it simple. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. Adverbs modify everything else (that's verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, if you're rusty). Clues, like adverbs ending in -ly, are helpful, but not reliable. The best exercise is to always draw an arrow from the modifier to what it modifies. This forces the writer to give justification for the modifier, rather than just underlining words and hoping he or she guessed correctly.

Phrases and Clauses: While various phrases and clauses function as modifiers, the most common are prepositional phrases. Once your students have identified the prepositional phrases, they need to ask what those phrases modify. That will determine whether the prepositional phrase functions as an adjective or adverb.

Verbals: These are words that are formed from verbs to function as a noun, adjective, or adverb. These can be infinitives, gerunds, or participles. If you are completely lost, check out this presentation for a refresher. The key to remember is to always ask questions. Adjectives answer the questions "What kind, which one, how many?" and adverbs answer "How, when, why, where?" If a verb is answering one of those questions, then it is functioning as a modifier, not as a verb.

Dangling Modifiers: Dangling modifiers are not clearly connected to the sentence. Have your class explain what they think the modifier is modifying. Then have them explain what the confusion could be. For instance: "Driving down the highway, the dog stuck his head out the window." Unless this is a reboot for The Incredible Journey, the modifier, "Driving down the highway" appears to be modifying the dog, but in reality is modifying the unknown driver. 

Misplaced Modifiers: While dangling modifiers are not logically connected to the sentence, misplaced modifiers are correct, but simply in the wrong place. Commonly misplaced modifiers are almostnearly, and only (e.g. you only live once vs. only you live once). 

Instructional Resources

Kick off your lessons with these presentations, or use them as refreshers for for classes. If nothing else, these provide a number of sample sentences, which are something I am appalling at creating myself. Use these examples before you move onto something more worksheet-heavy. It will allow you to check for understanding, since independent practice is only valuable if the learner knows how to practice.

Remediation Resources

Now come the drills. Old-school teachers know that the only way to truly learn grammar is through constant repetition. Even younger teachers like myself who enjoy English for the literature and discussion will willingly admit that grammar is all about practice. Proper grammar and writing can be absorbed holistically through exposure to good writing, but an actual technical knowledge of sentence structure and grammar requires worksheets like these and many more: 

For countless others, just search for modifiers on Lesson Planet.