Dangling Modifiers

Who did this? Can't you find the subject? It's probably the dangling modifiers' work! Let's see what are they.

"Dangling Modifiers" in the English Grammar

What Is A Dangling Modifier?

A dangling modifier is a type of misplaced modifier in which the modifying word or phrase is not clearly associated with the word or phrase it is intended to modify. This can result in ambiguity or confusion in a sentence. A dangling modifier often occurs at the beginning of a sentence, where the modifying word or phrase is separated from the word or phrase it is intended to modify.

Why Do Dangling Modifiers Happen?

There are two reasons that can lead to the occurrence of dangling modifiers:

  • Misplaced modifiers (also called 'distant modifiers')
  • Modifiers Without Subjects

Misplaced Modifiers

Sometimes the modifier is placed far away from the word or phrase it modifies, which can cause confusion and obscure the intended meaning. For example:

Sara was happy that Jessie had parked the car without hitting the curb with stubborn insistence.

Is 'with stubborn insistence' modifying 'hitting the curb' or 'Jessie'? The modifier is so far from what it modifies that it causes ambiguity

She heard that there was a robbery on the evening news.

To avoid ambiguity, we can rewrite the sentence as 'She heard on the evening news that there was a robbery'.

Modifiers Without Subjects

When the subject of a sentence is forgotten, unexpressed, or omitted, the modifier can become dangling, causing confusion and making the intended meaning unclear. Take a look at the example:

Wanting to take a nap, the light was so irritating.

It is not clear who wants to take a nap and 'the light' might be mistaken for the subject of the sentence.

Tip!

Sometimes writers place simple modifiers such as 'only,' 'just,' 'almost,' 'nearly,' and 'barely' in the wrong position in a sentence.

Luke nearly found 10 dollars in the street.

Luke found nearly 10 dollars in the street.

Here, 'nearly' modifies the amount of money that Luke found. So it must be placed before '10 dollars'.

Types Of Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers can be classified into different types, and recognizing the type of dangling modifier can help you correct it.

Dangling Participle Phrase

Dangling participle phrases can be further subdivided as the following:

Present Participle or Participle Phrase

Present participles are formed by adding '-ing' to the base form of the verb. The examples below show how these structures can form dangling modifiers:

Wanting to take a nap, the light was so irritating.

The subject of the second clause indicates that 'the light' wants to take a nap, which is not correct.

✔ Wanting to take a nap, I found the light so irritating.

Walking in the dark, the dog was barking.

Again, the sentence indicates that 'the dog', the subject of the second clause, is walking in the dark.

✔ Walking in the dark, he heard the dog barking.

Past Participle or Past Participle Phrase

Using perfect participle as a modifier

Past participle is formed by adding '-ed,' '-d,' or '-t' to the base form of a regular verb. Here are some examples of how these structures can be dangling modifiers:

Tired of all the work, the bed was made.

The subject is not clear.

✔ Tired of all the work, she made the bed.

Piled up next to the bookshelf, I chose a romance novel.

It is not clear what is piled up next to the bookshelf.

The books were piled up next to the bookshelf, I chose a romance novel.

Perfect Participle

Perfect participle is formed by adding 'having' to the past participle form. Let's check some examples:

Having gone to the wrong house, a call to the police was made.

✔ Having gone to the wrong house, the owner made a call to the police.

Having been so unlucky, the plane was missed.

✔ Having been so unlucky, she missed the plane.

Adjective Phrase

An adjective phrase is a group of words that functions as an adjective and modifies a noun or pronoun in a sentence. Let's see how they form dangling modifiers:

Young and stupid, the money was spent.

As you can see 'young and stupid' is an adjective phrase, but it is no clear who it is referring to.

✔ Young and stupid, I spent the money.

Old yet energetic, the sport clothes were bought.

✔ Old yet energetic, he bought the sport clothes.

Reduced Adverbial Clause

Adverbial clauses modify the main verb of the independent clause by answering one of four questions: where, when, how, and why. A reduced adverb clause is an adverb(ial) clause that has been shortened to a phrase, usually by omitting its subject and a form of 'be'. Pay attention to the examples:

While running down the stairs, the water was spilled.

✔ While running down the stairs, I spilled the water.

While looking in the mirror, the towel swayed in the breeze.

It is not clear who is looking in the mirror.

✔ While I was looking in the mirror, the towel swayed in the breeze.

Dangling Infinitive Phrase

Infinitive phrases are phrases that consist of the particle 'to' and a verb. Check out the examples to see how they can create dangling modifiers:

To go to school, a bus better be taken.

✔ To go to school, it’s better you take the bus.

To take the plane, the tickets were purchased.

✔ To take the plane, he purchased the tickets

How To Correct Dangling Modifiers

There are a few ways to fix a sentence with a dangling modifier:

  • Leave the modifier as it is and rewrite the main clause so that it begins with the subject being modified

❌ Having broken his leg, it was difficult to run.

In the above sentence, it is not clear whose leg was injured, so we can revise the main clause.

✔ Having broken his leg, Jason had difficulty to run.

❌ While running down the stairs, the water was spilled.

✔ While running down the stairs, he spilled the water.

  • Leave the main clause as it is and revise the modifier phrase to include the subject

❌ Having broken his leg, it was difficult to run

Because Jason had broken his leg, it was difficult to run.

❌ While running down the stairs, the water was spilled.

While he was running down the stairs, the water was spilled.

  • Combine the modifier phrase and the main clause into one sentence.

❌ To pass the exams, the teacher was paid.

She passed the exam by paying the teacher.

❌ To go to school, a bus better be taken.

To go to school it's better to take the bus.

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