Similar to descriptors, modifiers give us more information about something in a sentence. Frequently, it will be more information on the subject of the sentence, but not always. The easiest way to tell what is being modified in a sentence is that the modifier will always be physically next to the thing it is modifying, when it’s used correctly.

Modifiers aren’t hard when you dissect them, all you need to know about how to nail modifier questions on the SAT is in this post. Let’s start off by taking a look at an example sentence:

Although he comes off creepy and weird, Mr. Rooney puts so much importance on student attendance that he must be good at his job.

The modifier is directly next to the thing we’re describing. In this case, the described is also the subject of our sentence, Mr. Rooney. The placement of the modifier implies that Mr. Rooney is uptight and weird, which is an important detail.

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If the modifier is not directly next to the thing being modified, it is misplaced. A misplaced modifier could imply something completely different is uptight and weird, and therefore change the entire meaning of the sentence.

It seems pretty straightforward, but the SAT writers will purposely put modifiers too far away from what they are modifying to trick you into otherwise correct-sounding sentences. Typical college board: making easy things more difficult than they need to be.

 The sentence may still make perfect sense to you, but on SAT-style questions, it could still be incorrect because of the placement of the modifier. College Board is counting on you reading over the incorrect placement because it still makes sense. Don’t let them win!

The sentence could look like this instead:

Although he comes off creepy and weird, attendance is very important to Mr. Rooney so he must be good at his job.

The sentence sounds fine enough when you read it aloud, but the space between the modifier and who it is describing would make this sentence incorrect on an SAT question about modifiers. Creepy and weird describes Mr. Rooney, not attendance.

The tiny weird mustache is not helping this dude’s creepy factor.

Common Patterns of Modifiers on the SAT

There are a few common ways you’ll see modifiers on the SAT. While knowing what to look for can be helpful, keep in mind that we say things incorrectly in real life all the time and it flies just fine. It won’t on the SAT, so pay attention to what is being described and the placement of the modifier, and you’ll get it right every time! Save misplaced modifiers for casual conversation, and avoid them on the SAT to get all the extra points you can.

Modifier + comma + thing modified

This is the simplest example you’ll see. A modifier + comma + the thing modified.

A popular guy, his classmates offer sympathy when Ferris stays home sick.

His classmates are not a popular guy, so this sentence is incorrect.

A popular guy, Ferris has the sympathy of all his classmates when he stays home sick.

The modifier is directly next to the thing being modified, Ferris, so this sentence is correct!

Prepositional phrase starting the sentence

These modifiers help describe where or how something is.

In a state of anxiety, Cam had trouble relaxing all day because he didn’t want to get caught skipping school.

Prepositions usually precede nouns or pronouns, in this case, a state of anxiety, and they are used to describe whereIn a state of anxiety is the modifier in a prepositional phrase because it is describing Cam and where he’s at in life. I’m sure none of us can relate to him.

Ask yourself, “Who is in a state of anxiety?” to make the modifier in this sentence clear. From there you can determine if it’s misplaced or not.

Remember: The modifier will always be right next to what it is describing in a correct sentence! Even if it sounds right, it isn’t unless this rule is followed.

-ing words (gerunds) in the wrong place

A gerund is simply a word that ends in -ing. The SAT will try to trick you by putting the -ing word next to the wrong thing, which can completely change the meaning of the sentence!

Jeanie sees Ferris driving home with her mom.

This sentence describes what Jeanie is doing when she sees Ferris, but the placement of the word driving changes the meaning of the sentence and makes it unclear who is in the car with Mrs. Bueller and who isn’t. It sounds like Jeanie sees Ferris in the car with their mom, not that she is in the car, and she sees Ferris during the drive. See how easily that can get confusing?

The SAT is all about clarity, so make sure your answer choices are the clearest options.

Jeanie, driving home with her mom, sees Ferris.

With some minimal restructuring, the specifics of the scene become clear. Jeanie is driving home with her mom when she sees Ferris, who is supposed to be home sick.

In the middle of a sentence

This is another way they’ll try to trick you. Sometimes the modifier will be hiding in the middle of the sentence without any commas or signs to make it stand out. Remember to look at the sentence as a whole to see what the main idea is, and then extract the described and the description.

Ferris picked Sloan up from school dressed like her father to trick Mr. Rooney.

Who is dressed like Sloane’s father? This sentence makes it sound like Sloane could be pretending to be her father, which is weird and would definitely not fool Rooney. This sentence lacks the clarity necessary on the SAT, so it would be incorrect.

Ferris, dressed like her father, picked Sloan up from school to trick Mr. Rooney.

Now our modifier has found its rightful place next to the subject of the sentence, Ferris. It is describing Ferris’ appearance directly.

Ferris is a sneaky lil guy, Rooney never saw it coming.

Final Thoughts

Modifiers aren’t difficult if you know what to look for. They need to be directly attached to what they’re describing, or they’re misplaced. Misplaced modifiers will always make a sentence incorrect on the SAT, even if it sounds correct to the ear.

It’s best not to rely on how things sound when you’re answering questions involving modifiers. Make sure it’s clear what or who the modifier is describing and you’ll get the right answer every time!

Kirsten Mann
Kirsten is the Operations Coordinator at Test Geek. She has a 35 on the ACT Reading Test and enjoys sarcasm and pop culture references.

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