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Don’t Leave Your Readers Hanging: Avoiding Dangling Modifiers In Your Writing

Although they have a somewhat humorous name, dangling modifiers—words or phrases that modify a word not clearly stated in the sentence—cause serious writing problems. Consider the following sentence:

Example 1: Standing on the roof, the view of the city skyline was amazing.

Something seems funny about the wording of this sentence, doesn’t it? Take a look at the phrase that begins the sentence—Standing on the roof. Whenever we begin a sentence with a phrase such as this, we must remember that the phrase modifies (describes) the first noun or pronoun immediately following it.

In this case, the noun is view. So was the view standing on the roof? That’s what it sounds like from the way the sentence is written. Although humorous, this sentence is obviously grammatically incorrect.

So how can we correct this problem? We just need to make sure that each time we begin a sentence with a descriptive phrase, the word immediately following that phrase is the word being described. Consider the following sentence:

Example 2: Standing on the roof, we thought the view of the city skyline was amazing.

Now the sentence is correct—the pronoun immediately following the phrase is we, and to say that we are standing on the roof makes perfect sense.

Let’s look more closely at what dangling modifiers are and how to avoid them. We’ll start with some definitions:

Modifier: a word or phrase that describes (gives more information about) another word. Again, in the second example above, the phrase Standing on the roof describes we.

Dangling modifiers occur most frequently in sentences that begin with participles or participial phrases.

Participles: Words that look like verbs but function as adjectives; participles, which, like all adjectives, describe nouns and pronouns, most often end in -ing or -ed.

Example: The worried mother rushed to the school. Here, worried is a participle describing the noun mother.

Example: Amanda tried to quiet her racing heart. Here, racing is a participle describing the noun heart.

Participial Phrase: A group of words that begins with a participle and modifies a noun or a pronoun.

Example: Running as quickly as he could, Bill won the race. Here, Running as quickly as he could is a participial phrase describing the noun Bill.

Example: Concerned about the rising cost of a college education, Amber and Paul opened a college savings account for their newborn daughter. Here, Concerned about the rising cost of a college education is a participial phrase describing Amber and Paul. Also, rising is a participle describing cost.

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Now that we can recognize participles and participial phrases and understand how they modify nouns and pronouns, let’s look at another example of what happens when they become dangling modifiers.

Example: Arriving late for class, a written excuse was needed.

Again, remember that the participial phrase at the beginning of the sentence modifies the noun or pronoun immediately following it. In this sentence, Arriving late for class describes a written excuse, but does that make sense? Is it the excuse that arrived late? Of course not. This is a dangling modifier, and we need to rewrite the sentence in order to eliminate it. There are several ways to do this:

1. Name the logical performer of the action as the subject of the main clause:

Arriving late for class, Bob needed a written excuse. (Now it’s clear that Bob, rather than the excuse, was the one who was late for class.)

2. Change the phrase that dangles into a complete clause by naming the performer of the action within that clause:

Because Bob arrived late for class, a written excuse was needed.

3. Combine the phrase and the main clause into one clause:

Bob needed a written excuse because he arrived late for class.

Dangling modifiers are easy to avoid if we just keep one important point in mind: If the sentence begins with a descriptive word or phrase, particularly a participle or participial phrase, always check to see if the noun or pronoun immediately following the comma is the word that the phrase logically describes. If it is, then the sentence is fine. If it’s not, then you need to employ one of the revision tactics above in order to correct the problem.

Keeping these basic points in mind will make avoiding dangling modifiers in your writing much less tricky! But if you just can’t keep it straight, give the Writer’s Relief proofreaders a call!

Here’s to not leaving our readers hanging…

3 Responses to Don’t Leave Your Readers Hanging: Avoiding Dangling Modifiers In Your Writing

  1. You could also modify the following to make it correct as it stands with the addition of one word.

    ‘Standing on the roof, we thought the view of the city skyline was amazing.’

    as in

    ‘While standing on the roof, we thought the view of the city skyline was amazing.’

    It might be an odd way of phrasing the statement but still acceptable.

    RDB

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