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The Elusive Dangling Modifier

Frances Peck
(Terminology Update, Volume 33, Number 4, 2001, page 15)

Dangling Modifier: A subspecies of the misplaced modifier family. 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. Its habitat ranges from thick, unedited prose to refined, tidy and even published writing.

The dangling modifier is one of the most common and most pernicious errors in English grammar. Even accomplished writers wander into its trap, spawning shameful sentences like "Entering the room, the lamp fell over" and "Winded and tired, the race seemed endless."

The problem with these sentences is that they start with a modifier, a group of words that modifies something, but in each case the "something" is the wrong thing. In the first example, the modifier "entering the room" describes the lamp, as if to say the lamp was entering the room. In the second, the modifier "winded and tired" describes the race, which of course can be neither winded nor tired.

The grammar rule here is a fairly simple one: a modifier that introduces a sentence nearly always describes the subject of the sentence. The subject is the noun or pronoun that combines with the verb of the sentence to create meaning. In the first example above, the subject is "lamp," since the lamp fell. In the second, the subject is "race"; the race seemed endless.

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 a lamp. Changing the grammatical subject of the sentence gets this message across clearly and accurately: "Entering the room, the dog knocked over the lamp." Now the subject is the dog, and the introductory modifier logically modifies the dog. The same change resuscitates the second example: "Winded and tired, the runners found the race endless."

Here is another way of rewriting the second example: "Winded and tired, the race seemed endless to the runners." Does this version eliminate the dangling modifier? The answer is no. The runners are now part of the sentence, which clarifies the meaning, but the dangling modifier is still alive and well. The introductory modifier is still "winded and tired" and the subject of the sentence is still "race." Therefore, "winded and tired" still grammatically describes the race.

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: "The race seemed endless to the winded and tired runners." "The race seemed endless to those who were winded and tired." "The runners, winded and tired, found the race endless." In all cases, "winded and tired" has a clear and logical word to modify.

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 they don’t, there is a problem. Here is a good example: "Newly painted, I was impressed with the redecorated room." Should "newly painted" be describing "I"? Surely not. "Before eating his lunch, his stomach began to growl." Should "before eating his lunch" be describing "his stomach"? No—his stomach will not be eating his 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 recent 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 held responsible for creating those boots?