GrammarPhile Blog

Dangling Modifiers Can Mangle Meaning

Posted by Terri Porter   Aug 20, 2015 6:30:00 AM

Upon entering the doctor's office, a skeleton caught my attention.Dangling modifiers … it’s one of those terms editors seemingly toss around arbitrarily, accompanied by a command to correct the offending phrases. Well, of course, nobody wants their modifiers — or any other grammatical part — to dangle. But what on earth does that mean?

Defining Danglers

Modifiers are descriptive words, phrases or clauses. When the noun they’re describing is missing or unclear, they dangle. Modifiers can also be misplaced, which is a different kind of problem — and one we’ll talk about in next week’s post.

Most danglers are participles (verb forms used as adjectives) — either present (ending in ing) or past (usually ending in ed) — although gerunds (nouns made from verbs by adding -ing) can dangle too.

Clear as mud, huh? Grammar terms such as participle and gerund can have that effect. Some examples might help:

Example A: After smashing through the rear window of a parked car on the race route, the chopper airlifted him to a nearby hospital.

According to this sentence, the chopper smashed into the car and then airlifted someone to the hospital. That’s one hardy helicopter! The green participial phrase is dangling because it’s not clearly or logically related to the clause that follows. Here’s another example:

Example B: Having started at the firm as a summer associate in 1999, Mr. Barry’s securities trading experience is extensive.

Mr. Barry’s experience may be impressive, but we doubt it ever served as a summer associate.

Detecting Danglers

The following constructions can signal potential danglers:

  • Introductory clauses that contain an -ing word (Examples A and B above).
  • Main clauses (following an introductory clause) that

The following example illustrates the problem with passive voice in the main clause:

Example C: In weighing applications for development in the desert, available water sources must be considered.

The passive voice (must be considered) makes the subject unclear (i.e., who must consider), and the green participial phrase seems to modify available water sources.

Dangling modifiers followed by a false subject are common, as in this example:

Example D: Applying Dr. Cleary’s analysis to the present circumstances, it becomes clear that a downturn is imminent.

Here, the green introductory participial phrase is hanging out, unattached, searching for a concrete subject to give it meaning, which the false subject it makes elusive.

Another clue for rooting out dangling modifiers: They typically occur at the beginning of sentences, largely because danglers at the end of sentences have long been considered acceptable, as in the following example:

Ms. Burdock succumbed to cancer at age 46, leaving her husband to raise their three young children.

Likewise, certain introductory clauses are no longer considered danglers, such as those that begin with according, assuming, barring, concerning, considering, judging, owing, regarding, respecting, speaking and taking (Bryan Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage). For example:

Considering how unsteady Martha is on her feet, her ability to ride a bicycle for miles is remarkable.

Judging from the latest polls, the incumbent likely won’t win the election.

Disposing of Danglers

Dangling modifiers can be corrected by changing either the introductory or main clause (or sometimes both) or by reworking the sentence to eliminate the introductory clause.

  1. To correct the problem in the introductory clause, change it to a subordinate clause with a subject and verb; the main clause remains as is. Thus, we might rework Example A as follows:

After the cyclist smashed through the rear window of a parked car on the race route, the chopper airlifted him to a nearby hospital.

  1. To correct the problem in the main clause, begin it with the word or phrase that the introductory clause is intended to modify. So, using Example B, positioning the subject of the sentence (Mr. Barry) at the start of the main clause eliminates the dangling modifier:

Having started at the firm as a summer associate in 1999, Mr. Barry has amassed extensive experience in securities trading.

  1. We can also eliminate the introductory clause to remedy the dangler, as these reworked sentences from Examples C and D illustrate:

The city must consider available water sources in weighing applications for development in the desert.

Applying Dr. Cleary’s analysis to the present circumstances clearly shows that a downturn is imminent.

Having made it this far, ideally you’ll be able to spot and correct dangling modifiers with ease. If you still have questions, let us know in the comments below. And be sure to check out our post next week on those other problem modifiers: the misplacements.


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Topics: passive voice, dangling modifiers, false subject

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