A noun modifier can be a word, phrase, or even a clause that precedes or follows a noun and provides extra information about it. Sentences are often peppered with them because they help flesh out a sentence by providing interesting or important details. Not surprisingly, noun modifiers crop up frequently on Sentence Correction questions.
In the following sentence, the noun modifiers have been underlined and the nouns they modify are in bold.
Though they look cute, bears have sharp teeth and will kill if provoked.
The sentence begins with a clause that modifies the noun bear, and later the adjective modifies the noun teeth. It’s not important for you to be able to name the type of noun modifier – e.g. adjective, participle, relative pronoun, etc. – as long as you recognize its function in a sentence. Once you can spot noun modifiers and know the following three rules, you’ll be able to spot some of the most common modifier errors in Sentence Correction questions.
Nouns and noun modifiers are like love-struck teenagers. They always want to be close to each other, preferably touching. In some sentences, other words get in between them and trouble ensues. Grammar doesn’t like jealous interlopers and neither should you. When nouns and their modifiers are separated by many words, errors are bound to occur.
Let’s look at an example:
A team of scientists traveled to the Gobi desert to study the rare Gobi bear, which is revered for its harsh yet beautiful landscapes.
That sentence should sound a little funny to your ear. The noun modifier (in this case a relative clause) which is revered for its hard yet beautiful landscapes is supposed to modify the proper noun Gobi desert. However, because it follows the noun Gobi bear, that’s the noun it modifies, so grammatically the sentence is saying that the Gobi bear is revered for its harsh yet beautiful landscapes. This is nonsensical and obviously not the intended meaning of the sentence.
The error is corrected by rearranging the sentence so that the noun and its modifier are reunited.
To study the rare Gobi bear, a team of scientists traveled to the Gobi desert, which is revered for its harsh yet beautiful landscapes.
Much better. The noun modifier and noun are touching, keeping the intended meaning of the sentence intact. Noun modifiers must always be close to or touching the noun they modify.
Sometimes a noun modifier won’t have a noun to modify in a sentence. In this case, the modifier is more like a love-sick teenager, yearning for its absent counterpart. Grammar, once again playing the role of matchmaker, won’t stand for this either. The modified noun must be in the sentence in order for grammatical fidelity. Here’s what we mean:
Alarmed at the small number of Gobi bears spotted, the species is now considered critically endangered.
What is it that’s alarmed? It can’t be the noun species. Unlike the first situation, the noun that the modifier is supposed to modify isn’t misplaced; it’s missing from the sentence.
This is called a dangling modifier. The modifier “dangles” because it has no noun to describe. To remedy this error, you need to include the intended noun, in this case who or what is alarmed.
Alarmed at the small numbers of bears they saw, the scientists now consider the Gobi bear critically endangered.
Some Sentence Correction questions may try to sneak a noun modifier error past you by using a possessive. Don’t let a noun modifier get duped by an imposter like in the following sentence.
Eating mainly roots and berries, the Gobi bear’s diet does not differ greatly from other species of brown bear.
This may sound right because the noun modifier is intended to modify Gobi bear, but in this sentence Gobi bear is being used as a possessive. Noun modifiers cannot modify possessives, so in this case the modifier Eating mainly roots and berries is actually modifying the noun diet.
One way to fix this issue is to replace diet with Gobi bears.
Eating mainly roots and berries, Gobi bears have a diet similar to other species of brown bear.
Noun modifiers are not the only type of modifier nor are the above issues the only errors that can occur when using noun modifiers. However, the above errors appear frequently on Sentence Correction questions.
Remember, don’t let other words get in the way of noun – noun modifier love. Always check the placement of noun modifiers and nouns, make sure the intended noun is included in the sentence, and be wary of possessives when mixed with noun modifiers.