Sentence Structure # 05 Modify, Modify, Modify! (Or Don’t): Adverbs, Clauses, and Phrases as Modifiers

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Modifiers! They’re a lark! The more, the better, right? I’m well and truly known to be overwhelmingly, overpoweringly for every and all types of sentence modifiers, be they adverbs, clauses, or phrases–nothing’s as crunchy, as meaningful as a bad guy in a book described as “evilly chewing his lip”, say, or a general “fiercely gazing into the hearts of his cowardly soldiers”. And let us not forget for all those unseemly ads: “Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers” (courtesy of June Casagrande. who breaks this particular sentence down in a thorough way in her book on sentence construction, from which I draw for this series).

Okay, if you’ve caught the metric ton of sarcasm–I cover the minimal requirements necessary for someone to give advice to others regarding sentence structure. I don’t actually like sentence modifiers–not all of them. The first group of examples above showcase manner adverbs, and they are Stephen King’s foe. Mine, too, for the most part, though I’ll occasionally (see what I did there?) let them slip. I’m not an absolutist–everything in language has its function, including manner adverbs. But manner adverbs are more often overused in redundant ways than most other words. Forget the examples above–let’s look at obvious redundancies:

I formerly wrote daily posts for my blog up to 2020.

Now, that’s not true, but it’s also besides the point. “Formerly” here adds nothing; as June Casagranda points out in It was the Best of Sentences, it “creates a ‘blah-blah-blah’ effect” that leaves an impression that the writer isn’t paying much attention to what they write. Removing “formerly” shortens the sentence up, and it makes your reader more confident in thinking you know what you’re doing. “Daily”, though, I don’t mind – it’s a key part of the sentence. If you remove it, you’d switch up the meaning entirely.

Adverbs also weaken action; they’re crutches that excuse you from finding the right verb. Rather than write “Mishka quietly moved towards the vault,” write, “Mishka sneaked towards the vault.” See? More elegant, more concise, more to the point. Again, that’s not to say ‘no’ to every single adverb–some work well in the right place, at the right time. But to use them as shortcuts? That’ll cripple your writing rather than make it shine.

How about relative clauses? They are those clauses that you love to throw in to pad a sentence, which you adore because they allow you to go on flights of fancy, which is what I do anyway whenever I’m writing a blog post, which is again beside the point, as I like to remind myself, where productivity is concerned, which is a constant concern…

Relative clauses can get out of hand before you know it. You go off on one tangent, then another, before–boom, you’ve got a four-line sentence that shows no signs of ever coming to a close. I’ll assume you know what relative clauses are*–good! Here’s Casagrande’s distilled advice as to dealing with them:

Relative clauses seem to work best when they cast a little extra light on a thing or an idea. But they can quickly become a problem when they’re used to insert history or backstory. They’re at their worst when they contain an unstated “oh, by the way” or “I never took the time to mention this before, so let me squeeze something in now.”

p. 79, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences

We are left with the prepositional phrase to look at! They, too, modify – remember the example in the first paragraph, the one about the lady? That’s what happens when you mess up a prepositional phrase. Our expectation is that a modifier will modify a word it’s adjacent to, not a word the prepositional phrase is far apart.

Let’s come up with an example: “I tracked down a criminal in my underpants.” Ooo-o-o-oookay? Strange place to find a criminal, but let’s go with that one. The propositional phrase is “in my pants” and the confusion is borne from the fact that it modifies the narrative “I” and not the criminal. A simple rewrite helps: “I, in my underpants, tracked down a criminal.” It’s not the best sentence, but it illustrates the root of the issue. There’s also a messier set of mistakes with prepositional phrases. The rule of thumb with them is…try and break down an overstuffed sentence into two lean ones. You can’t go wrong with that.

Thanks for reading – I always regretted not continuing this series of posts but now seems as good a time as any to pick them back up! This series exists because of June Casagrande’s brilliant, witty book, pictured below:

Let me know what you think and do follow along with the blog!

*In case you don’t, here’s a two-sentence explanation: a relative clause comes after and explains a noun, i.e. it postmodifies it. (See how they are like adverbs?) Relative clauses can be either restrictive or non-restrictive–you can remove the non-restrictive without harming the original sentence, but not the restrictive.

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