Everything in its Place: Managing Modifiers to Improve your Writing

Let me start this with a few disclaimers.

Disclaimer #1: I have not formally studied writing since high school. I am not a syntactician nor am I a grammarian of any sort. I am a physicist and a teacher by training and a writer only by preference, someone who loves to read and write and observe. I will be avoiding using technical syntactic vocabulary because 1) that is not my area of expertise, and 2) who really cares about that shit anyway (side note: I apologize if you do in fact care about that shit, but if you do you can find many far more knowledgeable sources on those topics than myself). Basically, this is just my opinion and I welcome you to share your own so that we all (myself included) might improve ourselves.

Disclaimer #2: My view of the goal and purpose of writing no doubt colors my thinking of structure and style to a large extent. For that reason, I feel I should briefly describe where I’m coming from before diving in to the subject at hand. I view writing from the aspect of storytelling. I judge almost everything about a book by how well it sucks me into its world and carries the forward momentum of the story along. I love phrases and sentences for the payload they carry, the effect they have on me, and not for their grammatical or syntactic perfection or elegance. A beautifully-crafted sentence that cannot translate into a tangible image or emotion when I read it (if such a sentence is possible) just doesn’t do it for me. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to writing; good writing is writing that works, not necessarily writing that is most technically correct.

Disclaimer #3: This may get a little bit long. I apologize for that. I’ll try to make it worth your while.

What are modifiers?

Disclaimers out of the way, let’s briefly review what a modifier is so that we’re all on the same page. If you’re confident you already know what a modifier is and there’s nothing I might cover you haven’t heard before, feel free to skip down to the next section.

Modifiers are, brace yourself, words or phrases that modify other components of a sentence. I’ll try not to get too technical (because, again, who cares?) but the very foundation of your sentence is called the base clause. This is the meat and potatoes of your sentence, the essential information that it must relay to your reader. It doesn’t have to be neat or pretty, just (technically) complete: subject and verb, all that stuff you learned back in elementary school. For the purposes of this section I’ll use as my base clause: He sat in the chair.

A modifier is anything you add to your sentence to give new meaning to your base clause. The first kind of modifier that will immediately come to mind is the one-word modifier: adjectives and adverbs. He anxiously sat in the chair. He sat in the green chair. Or, if we’re being truly bold: He anxiously sat in the green chair. Notice how each has expanded on the meaning of the base clause (though not by much, admittedly)

Adjectives and adverbs are the easiest modifiers to make and use in a sentence, so of course we won’t talk about them much. Actually, we’ll neglect them because 1) modifying phrases usually do a better, more descriptive job of conveying the same information; and more importantly 2) the main point of this post is to talk about the placement of modifiers in a sentence and there really isn’t anything to say about the placement of adjectives or adverbs. They can either precede or follow whatever they modify, and picking one of the other doesn’t much change the flow of the sentence. Case and point: He anxiously sat in the chair vs. He sat anxiously in the chair. Any difference in those two sentences are entirely rhythmic or stylistic, two things that are so individualized trying to tackle them would be pointless.

The same is true of adjectives. He sat in the green chair vs. He sat in the chair, which was green. Here the difference is a little bit pronounced and in this example one seems stuffy if not downright ridiculous. Adding so many extra words just for a single adjective is wasted space which dries out your sentence and decreases its impact and fluidity.

The other type of modifier, the type which will be the focus of this post, is the modifying clause or modifying phrase. These are any phrases which cannot themselves stand as full sentences that modify any part of the base clause of your sentence. For reference, each of the last two sentences contained modifying phrases (the type which will be the focus of this post, and which cannot themselves stand as full sentences). These are, usually, far more powerful than one-word modifiers because you can use them to evoke specific details or add new actions altogether, giving you much more freedom than simple adjectives or adverbs ever could.

Notice how He sat, hands trembling and sweat forming on his brow, in the chair gives you a much more visceral sensation than does the simple adverb anxiously. It also, I would argue, changes the feel of the sentence. By deliberately spending more time and space emphasizing his reaction, the simple words the chair gain almost an ominous portent that was nowhere to be found before. Or, as another example: He sat in the chair, green although the dye had long since started to fade to a dreary and depressing white. Notice that, while before putting the modifier after the noun felt clunky, here it fits because the modifier adds enough extra information to warrant the extra space and word count afforded to it.

And keep in mind that the most famous modifying clauses of all are the sibling Metaphor and Simile.

Where to place your modifiers

Grammatically, modifiers are very easy to place. The can go before whatever they modify or after it. You can even jam them all the way to the front or back of your sentence, although doing so opens you up for the dreaded misplaced modifier (Green although the dye had long since started to fade to a dreary and depressing white, he sat in the chair is an example of the misplaced modifier because the modifier, which is intended to modify the chair, seems to want to modify the person sitting in the chair, which makes no sense).

As long as it’s clear what they are intended to modify, you can place your modifiers wherever you want.

But where should you place your modifiers? Finally we reach the main point of this post!

While to some extent the choice of where modifiers are placed is one of the things that gives each writer their own personal style, there are some concrete advantages and disadvantages to each. Knowing these can help you decide if you’ve placed your modifier in the most effective position.

Putting modifiers in front

In most cases, I would advise putting your modifiers in front of whatever they modify. This is certainly the case for descriptive modifiers.

The thing to keep in mind is that as a writer it is your job to determine three things:

  1. What information is given to the reader (plot, details)
  2. How that information is presented (word choice, foreshadowing)
  3. In what order that information is presented (sentence structure)

The point I’m going to be talking about is #3. Most people remember this on a large scale (You don’t put the conclusion to the story in the first chapter), but tend not to think about it on the small scale.

You have to remember that people read one word at a time in the order you’ve put them, and that as they do they form mental images of what is happening. Most readers don’t, or at the very least I certainly don’t, wait until they reach the end of a sentence or paragraph to begin processing the information it contains. It’s a brick-by-brick process, so putting your descriptive modifiers after whatever they are intended to modify can actually cause the reader to misinterpret the scene, then have to stop and go back over it.

This has happened to me a lot. I read a line of dialogue, imagining it said in a certain way only to get to the end to see “she shouted, tears in her eyes” when I thought she was happy. This is a sign of sloppy writing, and a betrayal of the reader-writer contract of “I’ll tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it.” If it matters that the character is shouting, you need to find a way to convey that information before I read the dialogue.

The same is true for modifiers. In some cases the difference is negligible, for example knees cracking, he sat down and he sat down, knees cracking have no real significant different between them in terms of the pacing of the sentence, but only because the modifier is so short.

As an example of where it would matter, take the following two sentences:

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” the man added without a hint of regret.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” the man added, his eyes looking anywhere but at mine.

Those two sentences are identical up until the modifier at the end, but that modifier colors everything that came before them including the tone in which the dialogue should be read. If your modifier completely changes the tone of the sentence, it needs to be in front.

This is the case with most adverbial modifiers. You need to tell me how something is done before it happens so that I can picture it the way you want me to. Otherwise you’re just hoping that we both picture the same thing and slapping me in the face if I’m wrong.

That said, you can also do the reverse by intentionally misleading your reader using modifiers before whatever they modify. For example: Huffing and puffing, sweat pouring from every part of his body, looking like he had just ten rounds with a champion boxer, he finally made it up the first flight of stairs.

Putting your modifiers at the front of your sentence allows you to set your readers expectations. Whether you fulfill or dash them is up to you.

Putting modifiers in back

All that said, there are times when the modifiers should go behind whatever it is they modify.

Adjectival modifiers generally fit into this category, and for exactly the same reason adverbial modifiers should go in front: It allows the reader to process the information in the proper order.

Take for example: Once white, now speckled with the grime and wear of neglect, the walls needed a new coat of paint.

That sentence works, but only if the subject of a walls was brought up previously. If this is the first we’re hearing of the walls, we just have no idea what this phrase is modifying and thus cannot establish a mental image of it until we finally reach the end of the sentence. That modifier could just as easily be describing a floor, a sink, a bathtub, or a toilet.

The same way you wouldn’t start painting without first laying down your canvas, you don’t start describing something you haven’t first introduced to the reader. That’s just wasting your words.

Another reason to put modifiers after whatever they modify is to imply order, especially chronological order. He took his stance, his gloves shaking slightly in front of his face, his footsteps heavier than they had been just one round earlier, but his gaze unwavering. Here the choice of putting the modifiers after the base clause seems to give the sentence a sense of motion through time. It progresses the story.

Note that the same thing can also be done with the modifiers in front (e.g. Not even having time to toast it, he shoveled some bread into his mouth as he sprinted for the bus) depending on the situation.

Yet another use for putting the modifier at the end is if it adds new information that isn’t directly related to the action of the base clause. He reached down a grabbed the fish, the very one which had swallowed his wedding ring all those years ago. Adding too much new information in the middle of a sentence can cause your reader to lose interest, while putting it at the end makes a nice segue between the two ideas.

You can also use this to surprise or shock your readers. He howled with delight tainted to no small extent with madness, the severed hang hanging by its hair from his bloodied hand.

Final thoughts

There really aren’t any hard and fast rules for when to put your modifier before or after the clause it modifies. These are only some of the many things to keep in mind. Just remember when writing to think about how the information you present will hit the reader and go with whatever sounds right. Maybe try it both ways and see which one strikes the chord you’re looking for.

And for sticking with me through such a long, possibly-boring post, here’s a picture of a smiling puppy (note: this puppy is, sadly, not mine):


2 comments on “Everything in its Place: Managing Modifiers to Improve your Writing

  1. cmboudreau says:

    I like the disclaimers. 🙂

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