Why you should watch out for dangling modifiers

White gibbon dangling from a treeIn order not to confuse the reader, it’s important to avoid ambiguity in your writing – unless, of course, it’s a deliberate literary technique. One area of grammar that seems to cause a lot of ambiguity is the thorny subject of dangling modifiers…

Dangling modifiers defined

So what exactly are dangling modifiers?

A dangling modifier – also known as a dangler – is a short phrase used at the beginning of a sentence that appears to describe the main subject of the sentence when in fact it doesn’t.

It means that part of your sentence isn’t properly – or clearly – associated with a subject; in other words, it is ‘dangling’.

Different types of dangling modifiers

To make matters even more confusing, dangling modifiers can appear in various guises. The two main culprits are participles (present or past) and prepositional phrases.

Oxford Dictionaries explains that participles of verbs are often used to introduce subordinate clauses, but they must be used correctly. The participle should always describe an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence.

For example: Closing the door quietly, Mr Brown left the room. This is fine because Mr Brown is the person closing the door and leaving the room.

What happens when modifiers get mixed up?

Sometimes, however, writers forget this rule and begin a sentence with a participle or prepositional phrase that doesn’t refer to the subject of the sentence – resulting in grammatically incorrect statements.

Running across the road, the bus pulled off.

Dressed in a new suit, the interview went well.

With huge green eyes, she thought it was the cutest kitten in the shop.

Even as an adult, the neighbour’s dog still frightens him.

How to spot a dangler

“Always suspect an -ing word of dangling if it’s near the front of a sentence; consider it guilty until proved innocent.” ~ Patricia O’Connor

One useful strategy to identify and eliminate dangling modifiers in your writing is to keep an eye out for any sentences that follow this structure: modifier-comma-subject-verb. Try switching them around to subject-comma-modifier-comma-verb and see if they make sense.

So, in the first example above, the rejigged sentence would be: The bus, running across the road, pulled off. This doesn’t make sense. A much clearer alternative would be, As I ran across the road, the bus pulled off.  

What about misplaced modifiers?

It’s worth remembering, however, that not everything that’s ambiguous or amusing is necessarily a dangler. Modifiers can be misplaced in other ways, such as I spotted a heron jogging around the park. or She rang her boss in bed. These awkwardly placed modifiers are ambiguous, but they’re not dangling.

Although understood by most people, the first example would be clearer if it was switched around to Jogging around the park, I spotted a heron; the second would benefit from adding a few words: She rang her boss whilst she was in bed.


So what do the experts say about dangling modifiers? Linguist Steven Pinker says,

“A thoughtlessly placed dangler can confuse the reader or slow them down, and occasionally it can lure them into a ludicrous interpretation. So in formal styles it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye open for them and to correct the obtrusive ones.”

What do you think? Are you relaxed about your modifiers dangling or do you avidly hunt them down?

(Image courtesy of Worakit Sirijinda via FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Posted in Grammar, Writing Tagged with: , ,
2 comments on “Why you should watch out for dangling modifiers
  1. Caroline Barry says:

    First time I’ve heard that term – you learn something new everyday!!

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