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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:

based [on]failingrecognizing

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.

A version of this article originally published in October 2014 on Visual Thesaurus.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Let Your Modifiers Dangle

  1. Hi dear Erin,
    Here is a question about the last example above:
    What’s your idea about this version: “The uniform Duncan wore yesterday, which is covered with mud, needs to be washed.”


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