What Is a Modifier in Grammar?

So Many Ways to Use Them

modifiers in English grammar
"I'm an excellent housekeeper," said actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. "Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house." (The words in italics are modifiers.).

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In English grammar, a modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that functions as an adjective or adverb to provide additional information about another word or word group (called the head). A modifier is also known as an adjunct.

As illustrated below, modifiers in English include adjectives, adverbs, demonstratives, possessive determiners, prepositional phrases, degree modifiers, and intensifiers

Modifiers that appear before the head are called premodifiers; modifiers that appear after the head are called postmodifiers. Modifiers may be either restrictive (essential to the meaning of a sentence) or nonrestrictive (additional but not essential elements in a sentence).

Examples of Different Modifier Usage

Too many grammar terms in a row? Let's look at some examples. Authors Günter Radden and René Dirven illustrate the types with the most common ways that qualifying modifiers are used. In all the examples here, the qualifiers modify the word detective and are in italics:

"(4a) Hercule Poirot is a brilliant detective.
(4b) Agatha Christie's detective Poirot is a legend all over the world.
(4c) The detective with the waxed moustache solves the most baffling cases.
(4d) Hercule Poirot is the famous detective created by the English mystery writer Agatha Christie.
(4e) Poirot is a detective who has come to England as a war refugee.
In sentence (4a), the adjective brilliant modifies the predicate noun detective....
In sentence (4b), the head noun detective is modified by the complex noun phrase Agatha Christie's, where the genitive morpheme 's expresses the relation of possession.
In sentence (4c), the noun a detective is modified by the prepositional phrase with the waxed moustache....
In sentence (4d), two nonrestrictive modifiers are added to qualify the definite referent detective: the adjective famous and the participial phrase created by the English mystery-writer Agatha Christie....
In sentence (4e), a detective is modified by a relative clause." ("Cognitive English Grammar." John Benjamins, 2007.)

Additional Examples of Modifier Types

We could go further, to illustrate additional examples: 

  • Hercule Poirot is a really good detective. The word really represents an intensifier for the adjective good. Really is an adverb, as it is modifying an adjective.
  • Hercule Poirot is that detective. The word that is a demonstrative. It distinguishes Poirot from at least one other detective.
  • Hercule Poirot is the detective who's not wearing a deerstalker hat. The clause is restrictive. The clause is essential to know which detective Poirot is, presumably from at least one detective who is wearing a deerstalker hat.
  • The case was almost solved. The degree modifier (an adverb) shows how much of the case was solved. Instead of intensifying, degree modifiers qualify, by giving the degree to which something is, like someone being fairly sure of something.
  • Wearing a deerstalker hat, the murderer was caught by Sherlock Holmes. This clause represents a misplaced modifier, because it puts the hat on the murderer's head instead of Holmes'. If there were no subject of the sentence (eliminating by Sherlock Holmes) the opening phrase would be a dangling modifier.
  • Few detectives wear deerstalker hats. Few is a quantifier, telling how many.
  • Both Hercule Poirot and Sherlock homes are well-known detectives. The modifier is a compound adjective.

Practice Exercises

If you would like some practice exercises working with modifiers, give these a try: