What is a Dangling Modifier?

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What is a dangling modifier?

Chances are you’ve heard of a dangling or misplaced modifier, likely during high school English class. But if you’re like a lot of people, you’ve completely forgotten about them. And that’s okay. Here’s a brief overview:

Essentially, a dangling modifier is a modifier that has an unclear or missing subject. And a misplaced modifier is one whose subject is unclear because of where the modifier is placed in relation to its intended subject.

Now let’s get into the details…

What is a modifier?

A modifier simply gives the reader more information about its subject.

  • Without a care in the world, John walked down the street.

“Without a care in the world,” is describing John’s state of mind.

  • Susan ate a plate of hot spaghetti.

“Hot” is describing the temperature of the spaghetti.

Problems arise when it is unclear what subject a modifier is modifying.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier has no apparent subject to modify. For example:

Incorrect: Upon waking at 7 a.m., my head began to hurt.

This example can be confusing because it sounds as if my head woke at 7 a.m. You can correct it by changing the sentence to read:

Correct: My head began hurting when I woke at 7 a.m.

Now we’ve specified what our modifier (woke at 7 a.m.) is modifying (I). It’s now clear that I woke up at 7 a.m., not my head.

Here’s another example:

Incorrect: With growling bellies, the devouring of pizza commenced.

Did you catch the dangling modifier? “With growling bellies” does not seem to modify anything in the sentence, even though we can assume that whoever was devouring the pizza did so with growling bellies.

Let’s revise the sentence like this:

The partygoers devoured the pizza with growling bellies.

Does this example look correct? Technically, it’s still incorrect. We have specified who is eating the pizza, but now it sounds as though the pizza has growling bellies. (This is now a misplaced modifier — we’ll return to it in the next section.)

The correct version of this sentence would be:

Correct: With growling bellies, the partygoers devoured the pizza.

Now, we understand that the partygoers, with their growling bellies, devoured the pizza.

Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers are different from dangling modifiers because, instead of having nothing to modify, they seem to modify the wrong subject.

Let’s refer back to the pizza example above. “The partygoers devoured the pizza with growling bellies,” has a misplaced modifier. The modifier — “with growling bellies” — seems to be modifying “the pizza” rather than “the partygoers.”

We fixed it so it is clear that “with growling bellies” is modifying “the partygoers,” not “the pizza.”

Here’s another example:

Incorrect: After watching a scary movie, sleep evaded Sara.

This is incorrect because the modifier – “after watching a scary movie” – is supposed to modify Sara, but instead modifies sleep. It seems as if the sentence is saying that sleep watched a scary movie, not Sara.

It is easy to revise. Just ensure that the modifier is modifying the doer of the action (Sara). For example:

Correct: After watching a scary movie, Sara was unable to sleep.

To test your knowledge on dangling and misplaced modifiers, take Chomp Chomp’s modifier quiz.

Come back next week to learn about the correct use of exclamation points and check out last week’s post on grammar controversies. And as always, if you need help with content writing, give us a call: 888-521-3880.