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The Elusive Dangling Modifier

   

Dangling Modifier: A species of the misplaced modifier kingdom. Renowned for its colourful name and ability to nest unnoticed in a sentence, often at the beginning. Mates with the remainder of the sentence to produce a confused, sometimes unintentionally hilarious meaning. Habitat ranges from thick, unedited prose to refined, tidy, even published writing.

The dangling modifier is one of the most common and pernicious errors in English grammar. Even accomplished writers wander into its trap, spawning shameful sentences like these:

  • Entering the room, the lamp fell over.
  • Winded and tired, the marathon seemed endless.

The problem with these sentences is that they start with a modifier, which of course has to modify something, but in each case the "something" is the wrong thing. In the first example, the modifier entering the room describes lamp, as if to say the lamp was entering the room. In the second, the modifier winded and tired describes marathon, which can’t be either winded or tired.

The grammar rule here is a fairly simple one: a modifier that introduces a sentence nearly always describes the subject of the sentence. That’s why the modifiers above end up attached to lamp and marathon. This rule suggests one easy way to fix a dangling modifier—change the subject. Let’s say the first example is supposed to mean that a dog, while entering the room, knocked over the lamp. A new subject gets this message across clearly and accurately:

  • Entering the room, the dog knocked over the lamp.

The same sort of change resuscitates the second example:

  • Winded and tired, the dancers found the marathon endless.

Here is another way of rewriting this sentence. Does this version eliminate the dangling modifier?

  • Winded and tired, the marathon seemed endless to the dancers.

The answer is no. The dancers are now part of the sentence, which clarifies the meaning, but the dangler is still alive and well. The introductory modifier is still winded and tired and the subject of the sentence is still marathon. Therefore, winded and tired still grammatically describes the marathon.

Changing the sentence’s subject is not the only way to repair a dangling modifier. Changing or moving the modifier, or indeed rewriting the sentence, will also work. Here are more corrections for the second example. In all cases, winded and tired has a clear and logical word to modify.

  • The marathon seemed endless to the winded and tired dancers.
  • The marathon seemed endless to those who were winded and tired.
  • The dancers, winded and tired, found the marathon endless.

For many writers, the real hurdle to fixing dangling modifiers is spotting them. Remember, most dangling modifiers appear at the beginning of sentences. Get into the habit of checking every sentence that begins with a modifier. First look at the modifier. Then look at the subject of the sentence. Do the two go together? If not, there’s a problem.

Here is a good example:

  • Newly painted, I was impressed with the redecorated room.

Should newly painted be describing I? Unless I’ve just come from some strange salon, surely not. How about this one:

  • Before eating his lunch, his stomach began to growl.

Should before eating his lunch be describing stomach? No—his stomach will not be sitting down to lunch.

Catching the elusive dangling modifier will not only make you a better writer, it will also make you a less embarrassed one. Consider this dangler from a Globe and Mail interview with feminist Gloria Steinem: "Small-bosomed and delicate-boned, Steinem’s black suede boots are size 8AA . . . ." Really, would you want to be the writer responsible for those buxom boots?

Test yourself