Grammar and Punctuation Tips: Modifying Phrases

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Without modifying phrases, our writing would be very sparse – possibly bland.  Modifying phrases are those parts of a sentence that ‘modify’ or describe the basic sense.  Pretty much everybody uses them.  But how to convey them on paper with the appropriate punctuation?

Two common mistakes are made with modifying phrases:

  1. A full-stop is used instead of a comma
  2. A semi-colon is used instead of a comma

In other words, modifying phrases need commas!  They need to be closely attached to the main part of the sentence they are modifying.

Here are some examples of mistakes with modifying phrases:

  1. Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood, with his black and white fur.  His pink tongue and wagging tail.
  2. The house was tidy; its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away.

Remember the rules for full-stops and semi-colons?

A sentence following a full-stop or a semi-colon has to make sense by itself – it has to have a verb.

  1. ‘His pink tongue and wagging tail’ doesn’t tell us anything – we have to ask what about these things?  A verb for sense is missing (don’t be confused by the presence of ‘wagging’!  Yes, it’s a ‘doing word’ and tells us what his tail is doing but it doesn’t create sense for the combined subject of tongue and tail).
  2. In the second sentence, ‘its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away’ also lacks any sense – because this is a modifying phrase:  it’s meant to modify the subject, verb and object ‘the house was tidy’.  Without this statement in front of it, the phrase about carpets and toys makes no sense.  Therefore it doesn’t stand alone and it can’t follow a semi-colon.

Properly written, modifying phrases are always attached by commas to the sense they are modifying:

  1. Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood, with his black and white fur, his pink tongue and wagging tail. [This sentence has two modifying phrases, both modifying the statement ‘Scruffy was the best dog in the neighbourhood’]
  2. The house was tidy, its carpets regularly cleaned and toys carefully put away. [The modifying phrase in this sentence modifies the statement ‘the house was tidy’.]

Do you think you’ve got the hang of modifying phrases?  Post a question if you’re not sure!

2 thoughts on “Grammar and Punctuation Tips: Modifying Phrases

    Beaulah said:
    August 24, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    This is awesome! Can you do a feature on using semi colons?

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