Who’s Afraid of Dangling Modifiers?
by Stephen Dolainski
What Is a Dangling Modifier?
A dangling modifier isn’t as scary as it sounds. A modifier is a descriptive word or group of words giving important information about another word or group of words in a sentence. The modifier describes, or modifies, the other word or words.
In a way, a modifier logically attaches itself to the word or words it’s modifying. Here’s an example:
Tall and handsome, the mysterious stranger looked like a movie star.
The describing phrase—tall and handsome—logically attaches itself to the words it modifies—the mysterious stranger. When we read the sentence, we know who is tall and handsome (the mysterious stranger). There’s a logical connection or attachment between the modifying words and what’s being modified.
Why Modifiers Dangle
A dangling modifier is created when the logical connection or attachment doesn’t happen. When the connection isn’t there, the modifier hangs, or dangles, by itself in the sentence. The modifier doesn’t have anything to hook up with in the sentence.
Can you spot the problem in this next example? Look for a logical connection between the modifying group of words at the beginning of the sentence and another word or words in the sentence. If the logical connection is missing, then you’ve got a dangling modifier.
Upon hearing the news, Rebecca’s response was immediate.
When we read the modifying words Upon hearing the news, we expect the next word in the sentence to tell us who heard the news. But the next words—Rebecca’s response—don’t have that logical connection to the modifying words. A response can’t hear. So Upon hearing the news is a dangling modifier.
Here’s one way to revise the sentence to fix the dangling modifier:
Upon hearing the news, Rebecca responded immediately.
Dangling Modifiers at the Beginning of a Sentence
Dangling modifiers frequently turn up at the beginning of a sentence as a group of words used to introduce the sentence. Watch out for a phrase that begins with an –ed or –ing word, or words like although, before, in, to, when, while, or with.
Dangling: Working overtime, the project was finished by the deadline. (The project didn’t work overtime.)
Revised: Working overtime, we finished the project by the deadline.
Dangling: Before she became ill, Claire’s life was comfortable and satisfying. (Claire, not her life, became ill.)
Revised: Before she became ill, Claire enjoyed a comfortable, satisfying life.
Dangling Modifier at the End of a Sentence
A dangling modifier can also pop up at the end of a sentence.
Dangling: The Golden Gate Bridge came into view flying over the city. (The bridge wasn’t flying.)
Revised: The Golden Gate Bridge came into view as we flew over the city.
Dangling: The test was difficult, not having studied enough. (The test didn’t study.)
Revised: The test was difficult for me because I didn’t study enough.
Learn more about dangling modifiers and ways to avoid other common grammar mistakes in Grammar Traps: A Handbook of the 20 Most Common Grammar Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, by Stephen Dolainski.
Buy Grammar Traps now.