Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
Modifiers and Modification
A modifier is a word or a phrase that describes another word or phrase. The most familiar examples are adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives describe nouns or pronouns. Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. (Articles—the, a, an—are also considered adjectives by some authorities.)
Here are some examples:


The dark night hid all.

The harmful rays of the sun penetrated the skin.


Laurie ran quickly.

Ziki spoke French fluently.

The SAT often tests whether an adjective or an adverb is required. For example, why is the following sentence incorrect?

My dog smelled terrible before his bath.

Terrible is an adjective modifying smelled, which is a verb. That’s a no-no; it should be:

My dog smelled terribly before his bath.

In addition to testing whether a sentence needs an adverb or an adjective, the SAT will very likely test whether you use the proper form of an adjective. Adjectives can take three forms:
Descriptive Comparative Superlative
sharp sharper sharpest
cold colder coldest
fascinating more fascinating most fascinating
good better best
bad worse worst
Most adjectives follow the regular forms exemplified by sharp and cold. Some, like fascinating, require more for the comparative and most for the superlative. Good and bad, and some others, are irregular.
Consider the following sentences:

Of the three knives, that one is sharper.

That knife is sharpest than this one.

Both are incorrect. The comparative form should be used with two objects; the superlative with three or more objects. The sentences should be:

Of the three knives, that one is sharpest.

That knife is sharper than this one.

Phrases can act as modifiers, too, and this is where things get a little trickier:

Racing down the country road, Carlos felt rejuvenated by the crisp morning air.

The phrase racing down the country road is a unit that modifies Carlos. But what if we wrote the sentence another way?

Racing down the country road, the crisp morning air rejuvenated Carlos.

What this second sentence is saying is that the crisp morning air was racing down the country road as it rejuvenated Carlos. This is the storied dangling modifier. The modifier racing down the country road dangles off the front of the sentence, unconnected to Carlos, the word it modifies. You will likely see a bunch of these on the test—the SAT loves to test this concept. Some other examples of dangling modifiers follow; they can be pretty funny once you recognize the error:
  • Incorrect Smoking a big cigar, the baby was admired by its father.
  • Comment There’s very little chance that any baby would be precocious enough to smoke a cigar.
  • Correct Smoking a big cigar, the father admired his baby.
  • Incorrect Sweating profusely from the exertion, there are some drawbacks to cycling in the summer.
  • Comment This modifier is dangling by a thread—what could sweating profusely from the exertion modify in this sentence?
  • Correct One of the drawbacks of summer cycling is that you’ll sweat profusely.
  • Incorrect Sweating profusely from the exertion, my shirt was soaked in five minutes.
  • Comment Was the shirt doing the sweating? I think not!
  • Correct Sweating profusely from the exertion, I soaked my shirt in five minutes.
  • Incorrect To stave off dehydration, a lot of water should be drunk while biking.
  • Comment We’re missing the noun that needs modification—who needs to stave off dehydration?
  • Correct To stave off dehydration, bikers should drink a lot of water.
Here’s an example of another error that shows up a lot on the SAT: the misplaced modifier. Typically, adverbs are to blame for this very common mistake:

He nearly hit that ball out of the park.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? The golden rule of modification, as you may have guessed, is: Keep the modifier as close to what it modifies as possible. That’s exactly what the author of this sentence did: nearly modifies the verb hit. OK, so what’s the problem? Well, sometimes this rule is broken for the sake of clarity and logic. What, exactly, does it mean to nearly hit something? Isn’t that kind of like missing it? That’s not what happened, clearly, so fix the sentence like so:

He hit that ball nearly out of the park.

Now what happened is crystal clear: the batter hit the ball and almost knocked it out of the park.
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