SAT Essay Writing and Language
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Modifier Location Matters

English grammar modifier PSAT SAT

Picture these sentences in your mind…

Ben enjoyed his burrito relaxing in the park. (Aaaaaahhh… Who is relaxing, Ben or the burrito?)

Rolled up in the closet, I need to wash the laundry. (Here’s another funny visual. Is the laundry rolled up on the closet, or are you rolled up in the closet...dreading doing the laundry?)

The cheetah surprised its prey running quickly. (Was the cheetah running quickly, or was its prey running quickly?)

I bought a sweater sitting on the couch. (Were you doing some online shopping from the comfort of your home, or did you buy the sweater that was sitting on the couch?)

Aunt Judy tends to spoil her niece, remembering how it felt to grow up poor. (Who is doing the remembering, Aunt Judy or her niece?)

The children screamed, for no reason, the candy jar was empty. (Do we not understand why the children screamed, or do we not understand why the candy jar was empty?)  

Burritos relaxing in the park, someone hiding from their laundry, prey faster than a cheetah?

Now that I’ve got you, let’s talk about some sentence structure basics.

A clause is an idea. There are two types of clauses.

  • independent clause - an idea that can stand alone as a complete sentence

  • dependent clause - an idea that cannot stand alone as a complete sentence (fragment)

When writing and speaking, we combine these two types of clauses to make complete sentences. The dependent clause provides more information or clarification about the independent clause. The dependent clause modifies. When this happens, place the modifying clause as close a possible to the word it modifies. Where you place the modifier has a huge impact on the meaning of the sentence.

The dependent clause applies to another word in the sentence.
The dependent clause describes or changes that word.  

Let’s take another look at our example sentences and see how we can improve them.

Ben enjoyed his burrito relaxing in the park.

  • Who doesn’t love a relaxing burrito? Burritos should relax more! They have too much stress in their lives. Enough joking, let’s look at the sentence structure:
  • Ben enjoyed his burrito - independent clause
  • relaxing in the park - dependent clause (fragment) that should be describing Ben, not his burrito. Let’s fix the sentence:
  • Ben, relaxing in the park, enjoyed his burrito. OR While relaxing in the park, Ben enjoyed his burrito.

Rolled up in the closet, I need to wash the laundry.

  • Sometimes I feel this way about laundry: I just want to curl up in a ball and hide in the closet. I can’t be the only one. However, I don’t think this is the intended meaning. Most likely, the laundry is rolled up in the closet and it needs to be washed. Let’s look at the sentence structure:
  • I need to wash the laundry - independent clause
  • rolled up in the closet - dependent clause (fragment) that describes the laundry, so move it closer to “laundry.” If we fix it, it could be:
  • I need to wash the laundry that is rolled up in the closet. OR The laundry, rolled up in the closet, needs to be washed.    

The cheetah surprised its prey running quickly.

  • I hear cheetahs are fast. Perhaps they’re the fastest land animal? So, I believe this sentence needs some rewriting to indicate that the cheetah was running quickly. Let’s break down the structure.
  • The cheetah surprised its prey = independent clause
  • running quickly = dependent clause (fragment) that needs to be placed as close as possible to “cheetah.” The sentence should read:
  • The cheetah, running quickly, surprised its prey.

I bought a sweater sitting on the couch.

  • I don’t know about you, but I enjoy some online shopping. Usually, I do it from the couch. On the other hand, I’ve never bought a sweater that was sitting on the couch. Let’s break down the structure.
  • I bought a sweater = independent clause
  • sitting on the couch = dependent clause (fragment) that describes “I”
  • The dependent clause needs to be placed as close as possible to I. We could even add a subordinating conjunction (while) for more clarification. The sentence could read:
  • While I was sitting on the couch, I bought a sweater. (Das better)

Aunt Judy tends to spoil her niece, remembering how it felt to grow up poor.

  • I’m going to assume that the reason Aunt Judy spoils her niece is because Aunt Judy grew up poor. Aunt Judy is older (most likely, but not always) and has the memories. Here’s the structure:
  • Aunt Judy tends to spoil her niece - independent clause
  • remembering how it felt to grow up poor - dependent clause that modifies Aunt Judy (so, move it closer to her). The corrected sentence could read:
  • Aunt Judy, remembering how it felt to grow up poor, tends to spoil her niece.

The children screamed, for no reason, the candy jar was empty.

  • Either, we don’t know why the children screamed, or we don’t know why the candy jar was empty. I think we don’t know why the candy jar was empty. This is why the children screamed! A candy jar should never be empty! Sentence structure, please:
  • The children screamed the candy jar was empty - independent clause
  • for no reason - dependent clause (fragment) that describes our understanding of why the candy jar was empty. How can we improve the clarity?
  • The candy jar, empty for no reason, caused the children to scream. OR The candy jar was empty for no reason, so the children screamed.  

Remember, we write to communicate. If our writing is unclear or confusing, we can’t communicate the correct ideas.

Weaving details (modifiers) into our writing makes our writing more interesting. We should do this!

Make sure that the modifiers are placed as close as possible to the word(s) that they modify. Otherwise, you may communicate the wrong idea.

……...Stressed out burritos need to

relax in the park……..

Thanks so much for reading this mini-lesson on modifier placement. You can find similar lessons under the blog tab on this website. If you’ve found this useful, or if you have a comment/question, I would love to hear from you in the comments section below. Thanks again.

Elizabeth Yoshida for The Test Prep Spot (@TestPrepSpot)



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