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The Curious Case of the Dangling Modifier

By Word Genius

Have you ever been told your modifier is dangling? It’s not an insult or medical condition — dangling modifiers are one of those grammar hurdles that can muddle your intended meaning. A modifier describes, clarifies, or gives detail about a concept. However, if there’s a clause in your sentence with an unclear subject, it’s probably because of a dangling modifier. 

Spotting dangling modifiers

Modifiers can usually be identified by location — they apply to the noun nearest them. But when the writer or speaker leaves out the noun they intend to modify, the results can be confusing. 

INCORRECT: Having finished dinner, the TV was turned on in the living room. 

Who finished dinner? The TV? In this sentence structure, “having finished dinner” is the dangling modifier and we don’t know what it is referring to. 

CORRECT: “Having finished dinner, the family turned on the TV in the living room.” 
In the corrected example, “having finished dinner” is no longer dangling. It refers to the closest noun, the subject of the following clause. It is modifying “the family” and what they are doing. 

Correcting dangling modifiers

You can correct a dangling modifier by turning the modifying phrase into a complete subordinate clause. That means the modifying phrase must contain a subject and a verb.

INCORRECT: Having overslept again, the bus left without him.

Who overslept? The bus? “Having overslept” is a dangling modifier here. Let’s clean it up.

CORRECT: Sam overslept again, so the bus left without him.

The dangling modifier is corrected by adding a subject (Sam) to the verb (overslept). You could also use a pronoun (he) and the modifier would still be correct. 

Another way to correct a dangling modifier is to move around the location of the words. You typically want the modifier to be next to the word it modifies.

INCORRECT: After a long journey, the comfortable bed was perfect for a nap.

Did the bed take a long journey? The dangling modifier “after a long journey” is confusing here.

CORRECT: After a long journey, he was ready for a nap in the comfortable bed.

We moved “he” next to the modifier, and “after a long journey” is no longer dangling. It is clear that “he” took the long journey.

If you’re still having trouble with your dangling modifier, try combining the modifying phrase and the main phrase into one.

INCORRECT: To improve his grade, the homework was submitted again.

Who wants to improve their grades? This sentence reads as if the homework was trying to improve its grade. We can also correct the passive voice that tends to accompany a dangling modifier. Let’s combine the phrases. 

CORRECT: He improved his grades by submitting his homework again. 

Dangling modifiers are a symptom of trying to be too fancy with your writing. Don’t add extra clauses and modifiers without being clear on whom or what you are referring to. Read through your sentences and make sure you have a clear subject and your modifiers are specific. If you’re confused, bring it back to basics. What’s your subject and what’s your verb? If you start there, you’ll clear up your dangling modifiers in no time.

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