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Revisiting Dangling Modifiers

September 22, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 12, 2014

One of the first grammar topics I wrote about at this blog was dangling modifiers. I came across a lot of them in manuscripts I read five years ago, and I’m still coming across a lot of them today.

They deserve another visit, an examination. They don’t deserve a place in your fiction.

Let’s review what dangling modifiers are and explore ways to clear your manuscripts of this common writing mistake.

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Modifiers change the meaning of other words. Common modifiers are one-word adjectives and adverbs, but phrases and clauses (both adjectival and adverbial) can also be modifiers.

One type of phrase that often gives writers trouble is the participial phrase. It begins with a present or past participle, and the whole phrase operates as an adjective. It’s the misuse or misunderstanding of participial phrases that can give rise to dangling and misplaced modifiers.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers create nonsense or unintentionally humorous sentences that don’t mean what the writer intends for them to mean. While both misplaced and dangling modifiers are problems for writers, the focus of this article is the dangling modifier.

The difference between the two?

A modifier is misplaced in a sentence when it doesn’t sit next to the word it is modifying. Trouble comes when the modifier seems to be modifying the wrong word due to that placement.

A modifier dangles when the word being modified, often a noun, isn’t even included in the sentence, when the modifier hangs from the sentence without an attachment.

Let’s look at examples to get a sense of how modifiers work. This first group shows examples of the correct uses of modifiers, with the modifiers (in red) easily paired with their nouns (in blue). (We’ll skip adverbs and adverbial phrases for this article.)

The quiet night was disturbed by unholy shrieks. (adjectives)

Wolves prowled the eerie forest. (adjective)

Howling wolves prowled the hills above our home. (adjective)

Inside the farmhouse, Lucy baked cookies. (prepositional phrase)

The children played with abandon, tossing aside their fears. (participial phrase)

Howling madly, the wolves prowled through the night. (participial phrase)

Disturbed by the sounds, Chester ran out of the house. (participial phrase)

Next, let’s turn the focus to participial phrases since they’re so often the cause of dangling modifiers. A few notes about participial phrases—

they can be moved around in a sentence

depending on their location in the sentence, participial phrases follow a comma, are followed by a comma, or are bracketed by commas

they begin with a past participle (ending in -ed for regular verbs) or present participle (ending in -ing for all verbs)

a present participle is not the same as a gerund, although both end in -ing

In each of the following sentences, the position of the participial phrase is correct. The options give writers variety in crafting sentences. One option may feel, sound, or look better than the other options in a given sentence or paragraph.

Howling madly, the wolves prowled through the night.

The wolves, howling madly, prowled through the night.

The wolves prowled through the night, howling madly.

Even used in a variety of locations in a sentence, the participial phrase makes sense. But what happens when the participial phrase is left with nothing to modify? When it seems to modify the wrong noun? Without a noun—with an implied but unstated subject—we create nonsense sentences or impossibilities. We create dangling modifiers.

A few examples of dangling modifiers in action—

Tripping over his feet, the stairs proved to be Jack’s nemesis. X

Drunk beyond good sense, an accident was inevitable. X

Looking to the sky, the stars were twinkling. X

In the first sentence, I’ve said the stairs are tripping over his feet. Since stairs don’t have feet of their own and they can’t trip over someone else’s feet, I’ve created an impossibility and a dangling modifier. The subject of the sentence should be Jack, but I didn’t construct the sentence in a way that makes him the subject.

There are several ways to rewrite. You can even make the stairs the subject of the sentence.

Tripping over his feet, Jack fell down the stairs that had proved to be his true nemesis.

While tripping over his feet, Jack fell down the stairs.

The stairs, Jack’s nemesis, had him tripping over his feet.

In the second sentence, I’ve said the accident was drunk. Again, an impossibility. Some person needs to be drunk. Corrections include—

Drunk beyond good sense, he faced an inevitable accident.

With Walter drunk beyond good sense, an accident was inevitable.

An accident was inevitable since Lysette was drunk beyond good sense.

In the third sentence, the stars were looking to the sky. To correct the dangling modifier, we need to add a person or animal who can look to the sky, or reword and make the stars the subject of the sentence.

Looking to the sky, Lucy saw that the stars were twinkling.

Looking to the sky, Edgar counted the twinkling stars.

The stars twinkled in the night sky.

The fixes for dangling modifiers are easy to write and can often help make a sentence more pointed, more specific, but a writer first has to notice the dangle.

If you know you create dangling modifiers, be sure to check every sentence that begins with a participial phrase; participial phrases at the beginning of sentences are usually the ones that cause the most problems.

Look at the noun that follows the comma: is it the subject of the sentence? Is it the noun that is being modified by the participial phrase that precedes it? If not, it’s likely you have a dangling modifier.

If you have trouble figuring out whether or not there’s a problem with the participial phrase, change its position in the sentence. You may see the problem more clearly with the participial phrase in a different sentence location, especially if it’s in the middle of the sentence.

These definitely don’t make sense—

The stairs, tripping over his feet, proved to be Jack’s nemesis. X

The stairs proved to be Jack’s nemesis, tripping over his feet. X

An accident, drunk beyond good sense, was inevitable. X

An accident was inevitable, drunk beyond good sense. X

The stars, looking to the sky, were twinkling. X

The stars were twinkling, looking to the sky. X

Other Dangling Modifiers

While participial phrases are the most common dangling modifiers, other modifiers, including regular adjectives, can dangle as well.

Bloodied and bruised, the boxing match proved too much. X

Unless the match was bloodied, this is a dangling modifier with no noun to attach itself to. Better would be something such as one of these sentences that name the character who is bloodied and bruised—

The boxing match proved too much for a bloodied and bruised Clarence.

Bloodied and bruised, Roy conceded the boxing match.

One more—

Too salty, Tanya needed a glass of water. X

What was too salty? Not Tanya, though that’s what this construction says. Rewrite for clarity and accuracy.

Tanya needed a glass of water for her salty lips.

The fries were too salty, and Tanya needed a glass of water.

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Dangling modifiers can create confusion for the reader. They can lead to unintended humor. They can create wording that’s inexact.

Dangling modifiers can reveal a writer’s inattention to detail. To effect. To the reader’s sensibilities.

But they can so very easily be eliminated. And they should be.

The key for eliminating dangling modifiers is to make sure each sentence actually says what you intend it to say. Make sure the noun that is being modified can do what you’ve said it is doing. Make sure the subject of the sentence is stated, not merely implied. Make sure you are modifying the object or person you think you are modifying.

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13 Responses to “Revisiting Dangling Modifiers”

  1. Amanda Stone says:

    I have to admit, I am REALLY bad about this in rough drafts. I will have to revisit this article when editing my manuscripts.

    • Amanda, dangling modifiers are tough because sometimes they blend into the sentence. Sometimes it’s only the funniest ones that jump out at a writer. But checking every sentence that begins with a participial phrase will help. As would a proofing pass from a critique partner.

  2. This is a very timely article! And I appreciate the refresher on the correct terms for the errors. I have been out of school for a long time. I am reviewing some youth writing for our writers’ group. Dangling modifiers, as well as orphaned relative pronouns, are everywhere!

    • I’m glad to have been timely, Alan. Maybe you can gather a list of humorous dangling modifiers for the writers. Sharing a good laugh might help the writers remember to look for dangling modifiers.

      And those poor pronouns. I hope they find their antecedents. I find that regular pronouns also lack antecedents. Being exact, spelling something out, has a number of benefits for our writing.

  3. Nina Coleman says:

    Are these participial phrases and as such, do they require commas?

    “They lay on the bed talking.”
    “She splashed in the water laughing.”
    “He stood there staring at his wife.”

    The reason I’m asking is that commas here seem rather clunky and awkward.

    • I suggest:
      They lay talking on the bed – no comma needed…
      Laughing, she splashed in the water. Comma and reorder to remove doubt.
      He stood there staring at his wife-no comma needed…

    • Nina, there’s a specific rule for the situations you’re asking about. Or you can rewrite, as Alan pointed out.

      For present participles following verbs of position or movement, there is no comma. These verbs include go, lie, come, sit, and stand. But this is only true if you’re not including one of those verbs in a nonessential phrase. Let’s look at examples.

      He came running when his mother called.
      He went running when the school bell chimed.
      The two of them sat contemplating their marriage.

      Two of your examples fit this use and pattern, so no commas.

      They lay on the bed talking (or they lay talking on the bed, which, as Alan pointed out, is the better choice).
      He stood [there] staring.

      Your other sentence is different. The verb is not one of position or movement, so a comma is required.

      She splashed in the water, laughing.
      Laughing, she splashed in the water.
      She, laughing, splashed in the water.

      A comma would also be required if your original sentences contained more information and the participial phrases were nonessential phrases.

      He simply stood there unmoving, staring at his wife through his broken glasses.
      They lay on the bed close to one another, talking about their days.

      Is that the info you were looking for?

  4. Nina Coleman says:

    Thanks, Alan and Beth. Your answers were very helpful. I’ve been researching participial phrases for a while and couldn’t find anything on these specific types until now. Much appreciated!

    • My pleasure, Nina. The examples you asked about are unusual. I’m guessing you subconsciously recognized that they didn’t usually get a comma, but you weren’t sure why not. The trend today is away from unnecessary punctuation, so if you can’t find answers for questions regarding punctuation, try removing the punctuation, at least for a while. You can always add it back in.

  5. Wanda Gavin says:

    Thank you Beth. I struggle with dangling modifiers. Your blog helped.

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