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Dangling Modifiers

 

The dangling modifier is one of the most insidious and confusion-causing problems in the English language. Dangling modifiers usually occur when a group of words (most often a verbal phrase) is not clearly connected to the word it modifies. When the modifier occurs at the beginning of the sentence, readers usually expect it to modify the subject of the sentence. When it doesn’t logically do that, the modifier is said to dangle. A dangling modifier can change the intended meaning of the sentence dramatically, which makes readers have to slow down in order to sort out the meaning. The dangling modifier also sometimes creates strange images in readers’ minds.


For instance, in the sentence, “Stumbling down the road, the car almost ran the man down,” the phrase stumbling down the road appears to refer to the subject of the sentence, car. But as good readers, we know that doesn’t make sense: it isn’t logical. So we have to revise it mentally, which slows us down considerably. And sometimes we just can’t figure out exactly what the writer was trying to say.

 

Here’s another example:

 

Incorrect Ex: Having tested positive for marijuana, the police arrested the suspect. [The sentence reads as though the police tested positive for marijuana.]

 

Revised Ex: The police arrested the suspect who tested positive for marijuana.

 

Revised Ex: Having tested positive for marijuana, the suspect was arrested.

 

So how do you know if you’ve written a dangling modifier? Well, first you have to ask yourself if the modifying phrase suggests an action and, if it does, where the actor (the person or thing performing the action) is. If there is an actor, you have no problem. If there is no actor in the modifying phrase, can the subject of the sentence be the actor of the modifying phrase as well? If it is, you have no problem. If it is not, then you have a dangling modifier.

 

For instance, in the preceding sentence, an action is suggested (testing positive for marijuana), but there is no one within the modifying phrase who did the action, so we look to the subject of the sentence to see if the subject there (police) could be the actor. But the police testing positive for marijuana doesn’t seem logical, so we know we have a dangling modifier, and we need to fix the sentence.

 

Once you’ve determined that you have a dangling modifier, how do you fix it?

 

Basically, there are two ways to do it:

 

Rewrite the modifying phrase so that its actor is contained within it. In other words, you make the modifying phrase into a subordinate clause.

 

Incorrect Ex: Having entered the theater, the music seemed to overwhelm me. [The sentence reads as though the music entered the theater.]

 

Revised Ex: As I entered the theater, the music overwhelmed me.

 

Revised Ex: The music overwhelmed me as I entered the theater. In both revised examples, the relationship between the modifying clause and the noun it modifies has been made clear.

 

Or you can rewrite the main clause so that its subject is also the actor in the modifying phrase.

 

Incorrect Ex: Upon leaving the stadium, the lights began to flicker. [The sentence reads as though the lights left the stadium.]

 

Revised Ex: Upon leaving the stadium, I noticed the lights were beginning to flicker.

 

In this case the writer has fixed the dangling modifier by providing the sentence with a subject that can act as the actor in the modifier as well: I did both things--left the stadium and noticed the lights.

 

You can test your understanding of this handout by completing Student Success Center exercises available here.