Modifiers & Commas

Grammar refers to the rules regarding the current standard of correctness in speech and writing. Advances in word processing software have included grammar-checking features. This page covers two topics:

Misplaced/dangling modifiers

  • A modifier is a word or group of words that describes another word and makes its meaning more specific. Often modifying phrases add information about "where", "when", or "how" something is done. A modifier works best when it is right next to the word it modifies. For example, consider the modifiers in the following sentence (they are underlined for you):

"The awesome dude rode a wave breaking on the shore."

  • The word "awesome" is an adjective (or, a one-word modifier). It sits right next to the "dude" it modifies. Also, the phrase "breaking on the shore" tells us where he rode the wave; thus, "breaking on the shore" is a modifying phrase that must be placed next to the "wave" it modifies.
  • Below are some examples of poorly placed modifiers. See if you can identify the problems:

Roger looked at twenty-five sofas shopping on Saturday.

  • Obviously twenty-five sofas were not shopping on Saturday. Because Shopping on Saturday is meant to modify Roger, it should be right next to Roger, as follows:

Shopping on Saturday, Roger looked at twenty-five sofas.


The woman tore open the package she had just received with her fingernails.

  • Had the woman really received the package with her fingernails? The writer meant that she tore open the package with her fingernails.

With her fingernails, the woman tore open the package she had just received.


The waiter brought the pancakes to the table drenched in blueberry syrup.

What's drenched according to the sentence? Actually, the pancakes were drenched.

The waiter brought the pancakes, drenched in blueberry syrup, to the table.


Lying in a heap on the closet floor, Jean found her son's dirty laundry.

It sounds as if Jean was lying on the closet floor when she found her son's laundry!

Jean found her son's dirty laundry lying in a heap on the closet floor.



Using Commas

This exercise will help to determine how well you know where and when to use commas. Insert commas where needed in the following sentences. Then read the explanations below.

  1. The restaurant dessert tray featured carrot cake coconut cream pie and something called death-by-chocolate.
  2. Because I was three hours short of graduation requirements I had to take a course during the summer.
  3. The weather according to last night's forecast will improve by Saturday.
  4. Students hurried to the campus store to buy their fall textbooks but several of the books were already out of stock.
  5. My sister asked "Are you going to be on the phone much longer?"

  1. The restaurant dessert tray featured carrot cake, coconut cream pie, and something called death-by-chocolate.

    The comma separates the items in a series.

  2. Because I was three hours short of graduation requirements, I had to take a course during the summer.

    The comma separates an introductory phrase or dependent clause from the rest of the sentence.

  3. The weather, according to last night's forecast, will improve by Saturday.

    The phrase "according to last night's forecast" interrupts the main clause, so it is set off by commas.

  4. Students hurried to the campus store to buy their fall textbooks, but several of the books were already out of stock.

    The comma separates an independent clause from a dependent clause.
  5. My sister asked, "Are you going to be on the phone much longer?"

    The comma separates a direct quotation from the rest of the sentence.

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