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Don’t Leave Us Dangling, Modifier!

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When you see a phrase in a sentence, and you can’t be sure which word it’s referring to, chances are it’s a dangling modifier. Having nothing to modify, the phrase just “dangles” without purpose (hence its name). Modifiers usually apply to the nearest noun to them. When writers leave out the noun or noun phrase they intend to modify, the modifier may appear to refer to something else. The results can be confusing (and sometimes hilarious).

Types of Dangling Modifiers

One type of dangling modifier is a phrase or clause that isn’t related to anything in the sentence. Here’s an example: “While waiting for class to start, the chalkboard caught her attention.” Who was waiting for class to start? The sentence structure suggests that the chalkboard was waiting, but really it was a character not mentioned in this sentence. Even if the character was mentioned in a previous sentence, this modifier would still be dangling. It needs the word it modifies to be within its own sentence.

In other instances, the modifier might refer to a word in the sentence that just isn’t close to it. For example: “After finally settling down, the loud thunder frightened him.” After finally settling down seems to refer to the thunder, but the writer probably meant it to be him.

Correcting a Dangling Modifier

One way to correct a dangling modifier is to change a modifying phrase into a subordinate clause. This means adjusting the phrase so it includes both a subject and a verb. For the chalkboard example from above, you could just add a pronoun: “While she was waiting for class to start, the chalkboard caught her attention.” Doesn’t that make so much more sense now that it has both a subject and a verb?

Another way to correct a dangling modifier is to change the rest of the sentence so that the modifier is next to the word it modifies. You could correct the thunder example from earlier by changing it to “After finally settling down, he was frightened by the thunder.” This makes it clearer that he was the one who settled down.

Misplaced Modifiers

A related, but separate, issue is the misplaced modifier. A Misplaced modifier is normally a short, descriptive phrase whose placement in a sentence makes the writer’s intent unclear. For example: “The workers said yesterday they took a long break.” Did the workers speak yesterday? Or did they take a long break yesterday? It’s totally unclear. You can usually correct misplaced modifiers by moving the modifier around in the sentence. Here’s one option: “Yesterday, the workers said they took a long break.” Alternatively, you could say: “The workers said they took a long break yesterday.” Either of these would be much more clear than the original version.

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