How modifiers can improve your TOEFL essays

Understanding modifiers can be a challenge because there are so many different types of modifiers. Basically, these are words, clauses, or phrases that add information to a sentence. In other words, they could be almost anything.

Perhaps the best way of understanding modifiers is to recognize that they are just additional words or phrases that add something new to a sentence. To put it another way: they modify the sentence. That is the key idea.

In this article, I will show you some common modifiers and how they can be used to improve your TOEFL writing abilities.

What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word or phrase that adds something new to a sentence. These include adjectives and adjective clauses, adverbs and adverb clauses, modal verbs, participial phrases, and other such structures. They can add new information to another otherwise boring sentence, add color to a phrase that lacked detail, or enhance or limit something where necessary.

Consider the following:

  1. An airport will be built on the edge of the city.
  2. A brand new airport, which has been proposed for several years, and which will allow millions of new visitors per year, will be built on the edge of the small, tourist city by the sea.

In the second sentence, the same idea from the first sentence has been included, but it has been greatly developed by the use of modifiers. These have added a great deal of information, vastly expanding what we know about the airport and the city. This is a sign of developed writing as the writer has managed to incorporate many more ideas into her sentence. The reader can look at this and learn much more about the airport and the city, which makes it a superior form of writing.

Using modifiers in TOEFL

Succeeding in any part of the TOEFL exam requires having a good grasp of English, and modifiers are important in that regard. If you know how to understand modifiers, you can increase your chances of doing well in the reading and listening sections, and if you can use them well yourself then you have a good chance of succeeding in writing and speaking.

A good TOEFL candidate will be expected to demonstrate fine control over the English language, and that means using precise phrases to express a particular meaning. In this situation, you will need to use adverbs and modal verbs to limit or expand the meaning of a sentence. By doing this, you can take comparatively simple ideas and expand them into more complex, developed ones.

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Take, for example, the adverbs “always” and “never.” In real life, these are actually silly concepts because few things are truly so certain. However, in language it is easy to speak in a lazy way that implies “always” or “never.” As such, a TOEFL candidate should be able to use words more carefully to limit the meaning and be precise. This might involve using “sometimes” instead:

  • Teenagers spend too much time playing computer games.
  • Teenagers sometimes spend too much time playing computer games.

In the second sentence, the only difference is the addition of the word “sometimes.” However, the change in meaning is vital. In the first sentence, it is implied that teenagers always spend too much time playing computer games, and this is of course not true. Any intelligent person should know that not all people are the same, and that while computer games might be popular among teenagers, it is certainly not 100% of teens who over-use these things. As such, it is far better to modify this idea with an adverb. You could also have used “often” if you wished to show that it is a very common occurrence. The range of adverbs of this sort can allow you fine control over the exact meaning presented.

Although this change might seem quite minor to some people, it demonstrates to a TOEFL examiner a very important ability, and so it can have an impact upon your grade.

We can similarly use adjectives to limit meaning, with the same benefits as I mentioned above:

  • Governments have taken measures to address the damage of climate change.
  • Some governments have taken measures to address the damage of climate change.

Again, here we have refined our idea and stated it in a more intelligent, accurate way. Not all governments have taken action on this issue, and so it is more truthful to say “some.” You could also modify this by saying “many” or “most” if you feel that those are more appropriate, but in any case they are all much better than suggesting that 100% of governments have done this thing, which is clearly not true.

Modal verbs can be used to more or less the same effect. We can use them to limit the meaning of something in order to avoid “over-generalizing” or being too certain. Words like “can” and “might” are particularly useful, when used correctly:

  • Educational programmes make children more aware of serious social issues and they will become better adults.
  • Educational programmes can make children more aware of serious social issues and they might become better adults.

Here, the second example includes two modal verbs, which reduces the level of certainty in the statement. This is important because of course it is not certain that these programmes will be completely successful, and other factors will impact whether or not a person grows up into a socially-responsible adult. Again, this small change in language has made the sentence much more accurate.

Problems with modifiers

One of the biggest problems with using modifiers is putting the modifier in the wrong position in a sentence. This can cause a great deal of confusion because it is not clear exactly what is being modified. Take a look at the following sentence:

  • Only big companies care about making money.

Here, the meaning is that there is only one group who care about making money, and that is big companies. It is implied that no one else cares about money, including individuals and governments. However, this is probably not what the writer intended. He probably meant to say:

  • Big companies only care about making money.

Now that the modifier has been moved, the meaning is completely different. He is saying that big companies care about just one thing, which is making money. This is more likely to be true than the first statement, but is it really true?

Perhaps a better way to express this is to lower the level of certainty:

  • Big companies usuallyonly care about making money.

Now we have added another modifier and this sort of softens the meaning. Rather than stating that 100% of big companies are only interested in making money, we have used two modifiers to say that this is common, rather than a hard and fast rule. Our language is much more precise now and the meaning is more believable. This signals to an examiner that the candidate is in control of his language use and has more developed ideas.


As we have seen from the above explanations, it is useful to use modifiers for a variety of reasons. They can make our writing more interesting and colorful, but they can also provide a much greater level of accuracy by limiting ideas or adding specificity to sentences. All of this is essential if you aim to score highly in TOEFL.

If you want to find out how good your TOEFL writing is, you should check out our TOEFL writing correction service.

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