Guide to the Marking of Written Assignments
by Ian Johnston

[This document is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone.  Released July 2000]


6.1 Modifiers are words which describe other words in the sentence (i.e., modifying their meaning). Adjectives modify nouns or pronouns; adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

Do not confuse an adjective with an adverb. When you want to modify a noun or pronoun, use an adjective. When you want to modify a verb, an adjective, or an adverb use an adverb.

My boy friend smells bad (adjective describes friend; that is, my friend needs a bath).

My boy friend smells badly (adverb describes smells; that is, my friend's nose doesn't work well).

I feel poor (adjective describes I; that is, I think I'm sick or out of money).

I feel poorly (adverb describes feel; that is, my sense of touch is not very good).

6.2 Be particularly careful with real (adjective) and really (adverb) and near (adjective or preposition) and nearly (adverb). The first member of each pair, as an adjective, must modify a noun or pronoun. The second member of each pair, as an adverb, is the appropriate form if you want to modify a verb, adverb, or adjective.

She has a really bad cold. [Do not write real bad cold]
He really did it.
That amount isn't nearly enough money. [Do not write not near enough money]
She was nearly dead. [Do not write near dead; the expression near death is correct]

Similarly be careful with the word sure, which is an adjective, not an adverb. Do not use sure to mean surely or certainly.

Sure, there is a lot of danger from guns, but the issue is exaggerated.
[Do not use sure in this way. Substitute certainly or to be sure]

She was sure tired after the long climb.
[Do not use sure in this way. Say really or certainly or very before the adjective tired]

6.3 When you use the comparative form of an adverb or adjective, make sure you complete the comparison. Otherwise the meaning of the sentence is not clear.

This machine is more expensive and runs less well.

This sentence makes no sense unless you tell the reader what you are comparing the machine with, so that you answer the question: More expensive and less well than what? Complete the comparison by adding than and the item you are comparing this machine with.

This machine is more expensive and runs less well than Model Z.

Unless the item being compared is quite obvious from the context, you should always complete a comparative adjective or adverb.

6.4 Make sure your comparisons involve similar items which can be compared.

The cost of living in Canada is higher than America.

You cannot compare the cost of living in Canada with America (a geographical area). You can only compare one cost of living with another.

The cost of living in Canada is higher than it is in America (or than in America).

6.5 Do not use the superlative form of an adjective or an adverb when you are comparing only two items.

Of these two women, Nora is the strongest.

Since only two items (people) are involved in the comparison, use the comparative form of the adjective.

Of these two women, Nora is the stronger.

6.6 Be careful of adjectives and adverbs which are absolute, that is, they have no comparative or superlative because they describe a condition or action which does not admit of varying degrees (e.g., perpendicular, parallel, dead, perfect, unique, married, equal, pregnant, and so on). Expression like more dead or less parallel or the most pregnant, and so on do not make clear sense.

If you want to indicate something close to or far away from one of these states, then use expressions like almost, nearly, far from being, and so on.

That wall is almost vertical (or not quite vertical).
She was nearly dead.
Those lines are far from parallel.
They are not quite married.

Be particularly careful of the word unique (which means the only one of its kind). Something cannot be more unique or less unique than something else, because an item is either unique or it is not.

6.7 Make sure that adjectives and adverbs are close to the words they modify, so that there is no confusion in the reader's mind. This rule applies to any phrases which act as adjectives or adverbs.

The man rode the cow with the yellow trousers on.
She gave the bun to her mother covered in ketchup.

In these sentences the modifiers are ambiguous, since they are at some distance from the words they describe. Put the modifiers close to those words.

The man with the yellow trousers on rode the cow.
She gave her mother the bun covered in ketchup.

6.8 Take special care with the placement of dates, times, and places in a sentence. Put them where they give the precise meaning you want.

As a result of your phone call at 10:30 a.m. on November 14 I visited the prime minister.

Do the time and the date here refer to the phone call or to the visit? Or does one refer to the phone call and the other to the visit? Clarify the potential ambiguity by reorganizing the position of the modifiers and punctuating the sentence so that these modifiers are clear.

As a result of your telephone call, I visited the prime minister at 10:30 a.m. on November 14.

I visited the prime minister as a result of your phone call at 10:30 a.m. on November 14.

6.9 Take particular care with the words only and merely. They make sense almost anywhere in the sentence, but the sense changes with each position, because the word these words modify changes when you change the position. Notice the difference in sense in the following sentence.

Only the soldier assaulted the starving sailor.
The only soldier assaulted the starving sailor.
The soldier only assaulted the starving sailor.
The soldier assaulted only the starving sailor.
The soldier assaulted the only starving sailor.

Position the only next to the word it modifies, so that you do not muddle the meaning.

6.10 One very common form of the adjective is the participle, which is derived from a verb. Every verb forms these verbal adjectives. The present participle consists of the verb stem with -ing added, and the past participle commonly ends in -ed (although there are many exceptions to this last point). Here are some examples:

Verb: paint; Present Participle: painting; Past Participle: painted.
Verb: study; Present Participle: studying; Past Participle: studied.
Verb: consider; Present Participle: considering; Past Participle: considered.
Verb: tire; Present Participle: tiring; Past Participle: tired.

The participle is an adjective, a modifier, and therefore must have a noun or pronoun clearly positioned as the word it describes. Make sure that the sentence does not create confusion by having a participle with no noun or pronoun for the participle to modify or having the word which the participle modifies in a position remote from it. Such a mistake is called a dangling participle.

Bowing to the crowd, the bull caught him unawares.
Tired and staggering, it was clear that she was exhausted.

In the first sentence, the participle bowing logically describes the word bull. Unless that is what you mean, you need to reorganize the sentence to make the connection between the participle and the word it modifies more logically clear. Similarly in the second example, the participles tired and staggering logically refer to it. If that is not what the writer intends, then she needs to rewrite the sentence to avoid any confusion.

The bull caught him unawares bowing to the crowd.
Tired and staggering, she was clearly exhausted.

Dangling modifiers most commonly occur without any clear word for the verbal adjective to refer to. Notice the following examples.

Considering all the evidence, it is clear that she is in the right.
Cutting down the trees quickly, the work was quickly finished.
Completely bored with this assignment, the essay is a failure.
Creating the story in this way, the audience is kept interested throughout.

These sentences all contain participles (considering, cutting, bored, creating) but there are no words in the main clause for these adjectives to modify. We have no idea of who is doing the considering and cutting or who is bored. These sentences need to be rewritten, so that these adjectives have something to refer to.

Considering all the evidence, we clearly see that she is in the right.
Cutting down the trees quickly, the crew finished the work quickly.
Completely bored with this assignment, I produced a failing essay.
Creating the story in this way, the author makes sure that the audience is kept interested throughout.

Remember that in most cases where you start a sentence with a participle ending in -ing in the first few words, you will need to provide a word for it to modify very early in the following main clause.

6.11 Verbs also form verbal nouns called gerunds. These are not participles, since they are nouns, but they look like present participles.

Running is fun, but walking is a bore.

Running and walking here are subjects of the verb is in each clause. They are verbal nouns (gerunds). It is not particularly important that you remember the name gerund, but you should be careful when you use words ending in -ing. If they are participles, then they must, like all adjectives, modify a noun or pronoun. If they are gerunds, then you must treat them as you would normal nouns. Notice, for example, the difference in meaning between the following two sentences.

I saw him cooking in the kitchen yesterday.
I saw his cooking in the kitchen yesterday.

In the first sentence, the object of the verb saw is the pronoun him, and the word cooking is an adjective (i.e., a participle) describing him, so that the sentence means, in effect, "I saw him in the act of cooking yesterday." In the second sentence, the object of the verb saw is the gerund cooking, which here functions as a noun. The second sentence thus means that you saw the cooking which he was doing or had done; it does not assert anything about your having seen him.

6.12 When you use a gerund with a pronoun or a noun before it indicating whom or what the gerund belongs to (as in the second example in 6.11 above), make sure the pronoun or the noun is in the possessive.

Our taking the money without permission is illegal.
Torvald is shocked at Nora's walking out the door.
The government's raising taxes is unacceptable.
They were surprised by his arriving yesterday.
I was surprised at the woman's appearing in court today.
I did not agree with Jackson's reading of the poem.

This possessive before the gerund is very commonly required in business letters in constructions like the following:

I object to his telephoning you.
I would appreciate your sending me the item.
Because of your department's refusing to cooperate. . . .
I wish to complain about Brown's working on this project.

6.13 The same principle requiring you to avoid dangling participles (see 6.10 above) applies to gerunds. You need not worry about the distinction between gerunds and participles so long as you remember that whenever you start a sentence with a phrase containing a verbal ending in -ing, you must make sure that the verbal naturally refers to the first noun it meets in the main clause (usually the subject of the sentence). If it does not, then you have a dangling modifier.

After dancing all night, the taxi took us home.

Rewrite this sentence to get rid of the logical confusion about what dancing refers to:

After we had been dancing all night, the taxi took us home.
After dancing all night, we went home in a taxi.

6.14 If you are in the habit of using many passive verbs, then you will almost certainly write many dangling modifiers, and your style will be quite confusing. To cure the problem, stop writing verbs in the passive voice. The active form will almost certainly take care of the dangling modifier and make your style better than before.

After completing the traverse, the survey was started.

Notice here how the opening verbal modifier (completing) is dangling, because it has no word to modify in the main clause which follows. In that main clause the verb (was started) is in the passive voice. If you change that main verb to the active form, the dangling modifier problem disappears.

After completing the traverse, the crew started the survey.

If you are not sure about the difference between active and passive forms of the verb, then consult 1.19 above in this handbook.

6.15 The same principle about dangling modifiers applies to infinitives (the phrases which identify a verb: e.g., to run, to play, to study, to work, and so on). When you use an infinitive to start a sentence, be sure that it does not dangle but refers to an appropriate noun or pronoun.

To get a good mark, regular attendance is necessary.

The infinitive here (to get) is dangling, because the main clause does not contain a clear noun or pronoun which will complete the meaning of the infinitive. Rewrite the sentence as follows:

To get a good mark, the student must attend regularly.

Now it is clear that we are talking here about the student. The same principle holds if the infinitive comes later in the sentence. You still must avoid creating a dangling modifier, a construction in which the infinitive has nothing to complete it.

Extreme care is necessary to avoid damage to the machine.

In this sentence the infinitive to avoid does not have any person to refer to. Rewrite the sentence so that you make clear what the infinitive refers to:

The operator must take extreme care to avoid damage to the machine.

6.16 When the infinitive functions as the subject or the object of the main verb, it functions as a noun, and you therefore do not have to worry about anything it might modify.

To err is human; to forgive is divine.

In this sentence, the two infinitives, to err and to forgive, function as nouns; they are the subjects of the verb is.

6.17 Generally speaking, you should avoid splitting an infinitive, that is, putting a word (usually an adverb) between the to and the verb.

Sharon always tries to diligently complete her work.

Here the infinitive to complete is split by the adverb diligently. If possible, avoid this construction by keeping the infinitive intact:

Sharon always tries to complete her work diligently.
Sharon always tries diligently to complete her work.


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