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Anika Manzoor

SAT Writing: Modifier Placement

One grammar concept that the SAT writing section loves is modifier placement. If you’re not sure what modifiers are or why you should be interested in placing modifiers on the SAT, then this is the post for you!

What’s a modifier?

modifier is an optional adverb, adjective, or phrase that changes–or modifies–the meaning of a sentence. For example:

I play the flute is a independent clause that totally makes sense by itself.

Now let’s look at the sentence with a modifier (bolded):

I play the flute, a woodwind instrument.

The thing about modifiers, though, is that they have to be placed in the right part of the sentence to make sense. Let’s see what happens if we switch up phrases:

A woodwind instrument, I play the flute.

Don’t see what’s wrong with this arrangement? Well the first example makes it’s pretty clear that

Playing Flute Modifiers on the SAT

I play a woodwind instrument.

The second example, however, makes it seem like

Modifiers on the SAT Flute Personified

I am the flute.

See? Modifier placement can be tricky. That’s why it’s important to learn how to spot the errors in placement and how to fix them for success with modifiers on the SAT.

Modifier placement errors

There are three types of modifier placement errors: misplaced modifier, dangling modifier, and squinting modifier. We’ll go over each error type with example sentences and the modifier corrections in the next section.

A misplaced modifier

doesn’t modify the correct part of the sentence, like the “flute” example we just went over. Let’s look at a more complicated example of a misplaced modifier (the modifier being in bold):

1. Having played composers such as Beethoven and Mozart at a very young age, Alicia Keys’ songs have many elements of classical music.

Do you spot the error here? The sentence seems to be implying that Alicia Keys’ songs played Beethoven and Mozart at a very young age rather than Alicia Keys, which is silly. How would you correct the non-modifier part of the sentence?

Misplaced modifiers on the SAT also come in other forms. In the following examples, figure out what is being modified and what should be modified.

2. Sonia was waiting for her book to come in the mail eagerly.

3. The boys and girls couldn’t wait action-packed for the new super hero movie.

A dangling modifier

doesn’t actually modify anything in the sentence (hence, it is “dangling,” or not attached to anything). Usually, the modified clause is in passive voice. For example:

4. Typing furiously, the essay was finished.

5. Desperate, a call was made to the police.

In both sentences, the modifying phrase is not actually modifying a subject. How would you correct these sentences? Check below to see if you’re right!

A squinting modifier

logically makes sense as a modifier for two subjects in the sentence. Therefore, it makes the sentence ambiguous in meaning. Squinting modifiers are the most tricky to identify because the sentence doesn’t have any obvious errors. Furthermore, squinting modifiers don’t come up on the new SAT like the other two error types probably because their ambiguity makes it hard to come up with one correct answer choice. Just in case, though, it’s still a good idea to know what squinting modifiers look like and how to correct them.

6. Students who don’t practice for the SAT often score lower than they would like. (It’s not clear if the “often” is modifying “don’t practice” or “score lower.”)

Note: Your corrections may look different from the ones below. That is fine as long as you make sure it’s clear which subject is being modified and that your sentence makes sense!

Modifier placement corrections

1. Having played composers such as Beethoven and Mozart at a very young age, Alicia Keys has many elements of classical music in her songs.

2. “Eagerly” is modifying “book” in the original sentence. Instead, the sentence should be Sonia was eagerly waiting for the book to come.

3. “Action-packed” is modifying “wait” in the original sentence. Instead, the sentence should be The boys and girls couldn’t wait for the new, action-packed super hero movie. 

4. Typing furiously, I finished the essay. (Or the subject of your choice)

5. Desperate, I called the police. (Or the subject of your choice)

6. Often, students who don’t practice for the SAT score lower than they would like.

Or, If students don’t practice for the SAT often, they score lower than they would like.

Tips for how to rock modifiers on the SAT

Let’s say the following is an SAT question: Sonia was waiting for her book to come in the mail eagerly.

The underlined portion is what you’re supposed to change. Here’s how to tackle any question dealing with modifiers on the SAT:

  1. Identify the incorrectly-placed modifier: “eagerly.”
  2. Figure out where to place the modifier or how to correct the subject: before or after “waiting.”
  3. Scan for the answer choice that matches your prediction.

Bonus tip #1! A lot of times–not always, but a lot of times–the corrected modifier or subject should be at the beginning of the correct answer! If you find that to be the case and you only see one answer choice that matches, you already know the right answer without reading through the choices. Pick it and move on!

Bonus tip #2! Don’t be afraid to pick “NO CHANGE” if you think that’s the case! 😉

P.S. Ready to get your highest SAT score? Start here.
About Anika Manzoor

A former High School blogger, Anika now serves as the editor for Magoosh's company and exam blogs. In other words, she spends way too much time scouring the web for the perfect gif for a given post. She's currently an MPP candidate at Harvard University and wants her life back, so if you ever find it, please let her know.

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