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Dangling Modifiers—A Common Writing Mistake

June 19, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 20, 2010

As part of my intention to post writing tips, I thought I’d start highlighting writing mistakes that I find while editing.  I picked today’s topic because it’s an error I see often and the fix is fairly simple. (For my clients:  No, I’m not picking on you, I promise. These are common mistakes in fiction. I thought I’d expose them, hoping they become not-so-common writing mistakes in the near future.)

Today’s topic? The dangling modifier.

I hear at least one of you laughing, but it’s true; that’s what it’s called. But since many of us might not know what a modifier is, much less how it can dangle (and why that would be bad), let’s look at a few examples of this tragic misuse of English grammar. (This is no slam against those who don’t know the zillion and one grammar terms;  you don’t need to know the names to know how to apply the rules.)

Watching from the cliff top, the ship grew smaller and smaller as it sailed away from Angela.

Hoping to reach her mother before her sister did, the phone felt alien in Gretchen’s shaking hand.

Not wanting the dog’s bark to give away their position, the muzzle was pulled over his snout.

Pretty bad, I know. What should I have written to keep from dangling my modifiers out in front of the entire English-reading world?

Watching from the cliff top, Angela saw the ship grew smaller and smaller as it sailed away.

Angela was the one doing the watching, so she should be the subject that follows the modifier (watching from the cliff top).  As written in the first example, the ship is watching itself. An impossibility.(At least the way it’s written here. I’m not precluding sci-fi writers from figuring out a way to make that happen in their fictional worlds.)

Hoping to reach her mother before her sister did, Gretchen lifted the phone in her shaking hand.

In this example, Gretchen is doing the hoping, so she should follow the modifier.

Not wanting the dog’s bark to give away their position, Vandercamp (or Elvis or the twins or someone) slid a muzzle over his snout.

As first written, this said the muzzle didn’t want to give away their position. Humorous, maybe, but not likely a true read of the situation. This example’s trickier, however, because of the construction. The subject of the modifier—the person not wanting the dog to give away their position—is never stated.

So, why were these modifying phrases dangling? Because they didn’t modify the subject they were intended to modify. Or, as in the third example, there was no stated subject to modify.

The modifier needs to be attached to something, to a subject (often a simple noun). That subject needs to follow the modifier. And that subject needs to be explicitly mentioned, not merely implied. For sentences using this construction to be read correctly (and without confusion), subjects need to be both identified and attached to their modifiers.

Dangling modifiers aren’t found only at the beginnings of sentences, but that’s where I most often find them. And they don’t need to begin with a participle (those -ing forms of verbs), though again, I often see that rather than something such as—

To ease his conscience, a dozen roses were ordered.

How to make that better?

To ease his conscience, Tom ordered a dozen roses.

Or the straightforward—

Tom ordered a dozen roses to ease his conscience.

So, it’s an easy error to fix, this dangling modifier, once you know what it looks like and what it should look like.

Look for actions performed by no one or nothing, and look for subjects performing actions that make no sense.

Check out any sentence that begins with a participle since those are the ones that often contain the dangling modifier.

Make sure that the first noun (subject) following the modifier (often right after a comma) is the one performing the action of the modifier.

Your readers will appreciate that you make their reading experiences both clear and enjoyable, without them having to do a double-take over questionable phrasing or laughing at poorly written sentences when a scene should instead induce tears.


Tags:     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Tips

11 Responses to “Dangling Modifiers—A Common Writing Mistake”

  1. Lisa K. says:

    Excellent advice. This is something I’ve been trying so hard to watch out for in my own writing. I think I’m going to bookmark this post and come back to it again when my brain is more functional.

  2. Vivian A says:

    Love the writing tips, Beth.

    Question, stylistically speaking, would it ever be appropriate to assign dangling modifiers to a single character as a speech delineation, or is it always a no-no?

    Don’t know if I’d ever use it because it is confusing, but could you see it working?

  3. Beth says:

    Vivian, you mean we’d know the character was speaking/thinking that way and not the author?

    I’m sure it’s possible, but it might be too subtle for the reader to catch. And still the reader is going to stop and reread when he comes across this construction. You don’t want anything that takes the reader out of the fiction to instead focus on the writing.

  4. Beth says:

    Lisa, I’ve got the not-too-functional brain going myself tonight. And the fingers to match. But if I wasn’t totally clear, someone please let me know.

  5. Kat Sheridan says:

    Outstanding article, and the examples made me laugh! I try to avoid beginning a sentence with a modifier, dangling or otherwise, unless I’m just going for some variety in the sentences. You really know how to take a tough topic and make it easy!

  6. Judi Fennell says:

    sigh… I’m off to read through the WIP one more time before you get it – I’m sure I’ll miss a few of these.

  7. Beth says:

    Kat, they do make for variety, so I consider them useful. But when they create unintended humor…

    Judi, they’re easy to miss. But I’m guessing you won’t have many in the latest, if any.

  8. Oh dear. I’m sure I’ve done this more than once. Thanks for the tips so I know what to look for. Great, helpful article, Beth.

  9. Beth says:

    Olivia, I think I’ve found at least one dangling modifier in every manuscript I’ve read. Sometimes they’re just sneaky.