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Writers Talk About Writing

Don't Let Your Modifiers Dangle!

In English, modifiers go next to the thing they modify. When they appear at the head or end of the sentence, they can modify either the entire sentence (Hopefully, the weather will warm up this month) or just the nearest clause (Exhausted from the race, Jim was relieved to see the finish line).

When a modifier dangles, however, the intended item is absent from the sentence. The sentence is often illogical:

Having lost her wallet, canceling her credit cards was Jane's priority.

The modifier might be a participial phrase, a prepositional phrase, an infinitive phrase, or an appositive phrase.

The dangling modifier has a near relation that also causes language users trouble: the misplaced modifier. In this case, though, the noun intended to be modified is present in the sentence, just not in the right place to be modified:

The school has been remodeled after years of abandonment as condos.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are challenging because they can be difficult to spot. Often the meaning is clear enough that readers pass right over them. That doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't fix them.

Identifying Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

It isn't vital to be able to tell danglers from misplaced modifiers, only that you can identify (1) what the modifier should be modifying and (2) that it isn't currently modifying that thing.

Start by reading the sentence slowly, pausing to consider whether the modifier is matched with the right noun.

Changing how you read the sentence after the first or second time can help, too. Reading aloud can slow you down enough to consider meaning. Switching between on-screen reading and print reading can help you look differently at the words.

Pay extra attention when the subject is it or that, as these words are often stand-ins for more complex subjects:

Realizing he could fail the course, it occurred to Tom that he should put more effort into studying.

In this example, it can't realize anything. It stands for an idea: he should put more effort into studying. The modifier is meant to refer to the person who did the realizing—Tom. (Because Tom is present in the sentence, this is a misplaced modifier.)

Watch out, too, for modifiers that don't contain the subject. You might find actions being ascribed to the wrong noun, as in our first example:

Having lost her wallet, canceling her credit cards was Jane's priority.

Having lost her wallet is a participle phrase modifying the subject of the sentence, cancelling her credit cards. The subject, though, is an idea; it's Jane who lost her wallet.

Finally, keep in mind the common participles that often cause danglers. Amy Einsohn lists many in The Copyeditor's Handbook, including:

acknowledging

concerning

including

admitting

considering

judging

allowing

depending

leaving

barring

excluding

owing

based [on]

failing

recognizing

beginning

following

viewing


Fixing Danglers and Misplaced Modifiers

Once you've identified a problem modifier, you have to then fix it. You have three options:

  • Change the modifier or the subject so they're compatible.
  • Change the modifier's position so it's next to its intended noun.
  • Rewrite the whole sentence.

Let's start with making the modifier or the subject so that they're compatible. In Having lost her wallet, canceling her credit cards was Jane's priority, we've already seen that it was Jane who lost her wallet. Let's put her in the heart of the action:

Having lost her wallet, Jane made canceling her credit cards her priority.

Note that making Jane the subject also puts the sentence in the active voice. There's nothing wrong with passive voice, but active voice results in more direct, crisper sentences.

Sometimes, though, we want to keep the original subject. With misplaced modifiers, we can move the modifier next to the thing it's intended to modify. In The school has been remodeled after years of abandonment as condos, we understand that the school wasn't used as condos then abandoned. It was used as a school, abandoned, and then remodeled into condos. Let's move the misplaced as condos:

The school has been remodeled as condos after years of abandonment.

Finally sometimes our only option for fixing a sentence is to rewrite it:

The uniform Duncan wore yesterday that is covered with mud needs to be washed.

Here, the modifier that is covered with mud is too far from its intended noun: uniform. While no one is likely to think yesterday was covered with mud, the sentence doesn't read well. There isn't a good way to keep the modifier intact and position it next to uniform, so we start over:

The uniform Duncan wore yesterday is covered with mud and needs to be washed.

Remember, the hard part is generally identifying the problem. Once you spot that dangling or misplaced modifier, you can rework your sentence until you find a solution.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 19th, 2:49 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
>Dangling and misplaced modifiers are challenging because they can be
>difficult to spot. Often the meaning is clear enough that readers
>pass right over them.

This does raise the question that if readers aren't confused by dangling modifiers, what's the problem?
Monday May 19th, 2:53 AM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
In the case of Tom's study habits and that of Jane's wallet I fail to see the problem. Your improved sentence for Jane actually sounded worse to me. I see the point clearly, however, with the abandoned school. Perhaps readability is a better criterion than a technical concern about where to put the modifiers. As a professional editor you are no doubt driven half mad by mistakes of the type described, but I think we're generally better off pursuing a policy of "no harm, no foul". Funny, though, I just went through an internal debate about where to put "generally" in the previous sentence; thanks for the reminder.
Monday May 19th, 6:37 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Craig, I agree that we want writing to sound natural and give the correct meaning and those things can outweigh grammatical correctness. In the Jane and Tom sentences the meaning comes through. Would I leave them in a manuscript if I found them? It depends on how it fits with the rest of the paragraph, how it fits with the author's overall writing style, and how the audience will receive it, as well as whether it's grammatical and whether it gives the right meaning. But here I just want to point out English usage issues and how to fix them *when necessary*.

It's for sentences like the school and Duncan that we should be aware of dangling and misplaced modifiers and know how to fix them. Real-world examples tend to be more complicated and harder to correct. By their nature, example sentences are stripped down to the basics to help learners easily identify problems and see solutions. Hence the Jane and Tom examples.

As for what sounds better, that's generally a matter of opinion. I don't think the original Jane and Tom sentences sounded bad, but the school and Duncan ones displeased my ear. I like the sound of all of the rewrites, but that's to be expected: I wrote them.
Monday May 19th, 6:46 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mike, that's a good question, and one editors often ask. Example sentences are necessarily simplified, of course. In the real world, sentences often contain more than one error and can be much more complicated. Should you find a dangler or misplaced modifier in your sentences, you might consider:

1. Does the sentence make sense? Is it logical? I know what I'm trying to say; will my readers? If they pause, even for a moment, to process two meanings and decide on the correct meaning, they may not continue reading.

2. Does the sentence give only my intended meaning? Ensure readers can only get the desired meaning from the sentence. If it can be read two ways, something needs to be fixed.

3. What are my audience's expectations? Will they expect absolute grammatical correctness? Some readers will notice the slightest problem and be so distracted by it that they will miss your intended point. Write for your audience as much as you can while staying true to your voice--a tall order!
Monday May 19th, 7:22 PM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
I agree with you on which ones sound good and which ones do not. I can see that it may be a matter of personal choice or comfort with the text. Could it be a matter of voice in these cases? But, despite my appreciation for this primer on dangling modifiers, I was struck by your use of the adverb "hopefully" in the opening example. This has come, no doubt, from common usage, but it still grates on me. I or we or Tom may be hopeful that the weather will change, but the word hopefully should modify a verb, should it not? Maybe I'm being old fashioned.
Monday May 19th, 8:59 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I agree with Erin that sentences feel natural when the modifier is correctly placed. As a writer, I am constantly rewriting sentences because they feel clumsy and it is invariably a misplaced modifier that has caused the problem
Tuesday May 20th, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi, James. Restricting "hopefully" to modify only verbs is a zombie rule. It's long been acceptable to use it as a sentence modifier as well. You can read more about it in one of my previous posts: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wc/killing-the-zombies-split-infinitives-hopefully-and-singular-they/.

Thanks, Ferial!
Tuesday May 20th, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
In my very humble, but usually ignored in the real world, opinion, the question of 'What's the problem if people don't see the mistake?' is that it does exist as a problem for the people who DO see the mistake. That is in addition to possibly giving incorrect information.

Like so many usages, 'lie/lay', objective case after prepositions, 'it's/its, and so on, the person who does see a misapplication or mistake pauses at that point and loses the rhythm of the sentence. He or she does see it, and is bothered.

Why not help those of us who do spot the dangling get sorted out?

Having spent years teaching such things as fixing these, I think recognizing when they've been written is the main problem.

Again, a case for more being done with our language in schools earlier in the educational process.

Dangling modifiers can be humourous as well as misleading.
Thursday May 22nd, 11:43 AM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
I have an analogy of sorts to support Jane B's comments (May 20). These examples also reflect my own sense of ill-ease with language misuse. There are well-kept homes with everything absolutely and exactly placed. And there others that are at the other extreme, perhaps as messy as a pigsty. Many more homes fall between the two extremes. Similarly, personal appearance may be clean, neat, and pleasant; others appear slovenly and unkempt. How much pride one takes in the appearance of one's home or one's personal appearance can be neurotically engrained. Perhaps a little dust or casual arrangement of comfort items creates an acceptable atmosphere for living . And comfortable old shoes and shirt go well at home but not at the opera.

So it is with language. Extreme pedantry in language points up how usage is evolving from where it has been to where is comfortable today. Yet many of us were inculcated with proper usage many years ago, and when we stumble across awkward structure we know instinctively something is awry. A little dust around the house may not be noticed but a pile of dirty dishes always present makes others think "How is the rest of the house." Much depends on our audience. I find it useful to have these opportunities to read critically where language usage needs to be challenged, as well as to observe language evolution. Playing the two extremes creates a happy medium of comfort, while allowing flexibility to tighten up or to lighten up.

John E., Mechanicsburg, Pa
Thursday May 22nd, 3:49 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I like your analogy, John, and I agree. I'm going to take more pains with my appearance when I meet colleagues than when I'm camping with my family.
Saturday May 31st, 2:35 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
I am not a native speaker, but haven't 'judging from', 'considering', 'owing to', and some others gradually become kind-of prepositions, imply that they are no longer considered participles, let alone dangling modifiers?
Saturday May 31st, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I can't think of a good sentence with 'owing to' right now. I think it's a cliche (e with the accent) or a tired expression.

If the other two are used with the meanings of the words 'considering' and 'judging', they seem to be participles still.

Even if they had become prepositions, they would still need to be placed accurately.

I know that a verb phrase such as 'looking for' or 'looking at' can be considered (or maybe should be) as a verb taking an object, as with the French verb 'chercher'.

I don't know how the others have switched, however. But it would be interesting to hear from an expert.
Friday June 6th, 6:06 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thomas, I can't find any evidence that "judging from" is considered a preposition (though "from" is), but "considering" and "owing to" can be used as prepositions.

That said, Jane is right: you still have to ensure that they modify the thing they're meant to modify.

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