Dangling Modifiers

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier is a modifier that has nothing to modify. (Remember, modifiers describe a word or make its meaning more specific.)

In other words, a dangling modifier is an error caused by failing to use the word that the modifier is meant to be modifying.

Easy Examples of Dangling Modifiers

  • Upon entering the room, a skeleton caught my eye.
  • (Nothing in this sentence entered the room. The skeleton didn't. My eye didn't.)
  • Having followed a strict diet, her weight dropped rapidly.
  • (Nothing in this sentence followed a strict diet. Her weight didn't.)

Real-Life Examples of Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers usually occur because writers get ahead of themselves. They assume the thing they're talking about is so implicit (obvious) from the context they forget to mention it.
  • Having read your letter, my cat will stay indoors until the ducklings fly off. [wrong]
  • (It's pretty clear that the cat's owner read the letter, but the owner is not mentioned. Therefore, Having read your letter is a dangling modifier. It doesn't apply to anything in the sentence. Neither cats nor ducklings can read.)
A correct version would be:
  • Having read your letter, we will keep our cat indoors until the ducklings fly off. [correct]
  • (Here, Having read your letter modifies we.)
Here is another dangling modifier:
  • Packing my kit into three huge holdalls, my little Jack Russell could tell a long trip was coming. [wrong]
  • (Nothing in this sentence packed the kit. Therefore, Packing my kit into three huge holdalls is a dangling modifier. It doesn't apply to anything.)
A correct version would be:
  • Packing my kit into three huge holdalls, I knew my little Jack Russell could tell a long trip was coming. [correct]
It can get a little trickier. Look at this example of a dangling modifier:
  • Meticulous and punctual, David's work ethic is admirable. [wrong]
  • (Here, the "missing" word is David because David is not the head noun in the phrase David's work ethic. Meticulous and punctual is modifying the head noun ethic. The sentence tells us that David's work ethic is meticulous and punctual, which is illogical.)
A correct version would be:
  • Meticulous and punctual, David has an admirable work ethic. [correct]
  • (Here, the modifier Meticulous and punctual is modifying David as it should, not David's work ethic.)
Sometimes, a modifier can dangle a bit. This happens when the word being modified is present but not next to its modifier.
  • Vicious smelly creatures with huge tusks, the ship's crew found it difficult to drive the male walruses from the beach.
  • (This is better known as a misplaced modifier. The modifier is not dangling fully because the thing being modified (the male walruses) is present.)

Why Should I Care about Dangling Modifiers?

Dangling modifiers don't usually lead to ambiguity because the missing term is nearly always implicit. However, using a dangling modifier will tell your grammar-savvy readers that you're not a clear thinker.

Also, knowing about dangling modifiers allows you to tell your boss or your mates that they've used a dangling modifier, which surely is a win in anyone's book. In terms of its scoringpointsiness, it's probably only trumped by squinting modifier. (We have an entry on that too.)

To ensure you don't use a dangling modifier yourself, assume any modifier you use is dangling until you've nailed it to the term its modifying.
  • Walking through the cemetery, the trees became long-fingered ghouls.
  • (If you were writing this sentence, you should have warning bells sounding before reaching the end of trees.)
Here are some options without the dangling modifier:
  • Walking through the cemetery, I saw the trees become long-fingered ghouls.
  • As I walked through the cemetery, the trees became long-fingered ghouls.
  • (Often, it's best to sidestep the modifier by rewording.)
Also, to avoid a misplaced modifier, put your modifier next to (typically to the left of) the term it's modifying.
  • While crossing the road, the bus hit Janet. [wrong]
  • (Janet is present so this is a misplaced modifier, i.e., it's not fully dangling.)
  • While crossing the road, Janet was hit by the bus. [correct]
  • (This is one option for putting the modifier next to Janet. It's much tidier.)

Key Point

  • Assume your modifier is dangling until you're sure it isn't.
  • Put your modifier next to the term it's modifying (typically immediately to the left).
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