Dangling Modifier: Don’t Make This Funny Grammar Mistake

Let’s address one of the most annoying grammar mistakes: the dangling modifier.  Like its cousin, the misplaced modifier, the dangling modifier can unintentionally turn your writing into a comedy of errors. Being funny is only funny when you’re trying to be funny, right? This blog post will show you how to spot a dangling modifier and fix it before you make a regrettably hilarious mistake.

What Is a Dangling Modifier?

To understand the concept of a dangling modifier, it’s a good idea to learn about the misplaced modifier first (if you haven’t read that post yet, you should). So, what’s the difference between a dangling modifier and a misplaced modifier?

Remember my analogy in the last post? Using a misplaced modifier is like wearing a hat on your foot. You can easily remedy this error by putting the hat on your head, just as in a sentence you can simply move the incorrectly placed modifying word or phrase to the correct place in the sentence.

A dangling modifier, on the other hand, is so out of context that merely moving it won’t fix anything. In our analogy, it would be like wearing a baby’s diaper on your head. Moving the baby’s diaper to your bottom isn’t going to solve anything because you shouldn’t be wearing a baby’s diaper in the first place.

To fix the dangling modifier, we need to figure out what the modifier is trying to modify and rewrite the sentence around that. In the case of the diaper, we need to find the baby whose bottom it should be on.

Dangling Modifier Examples

Typically, a dangling modifier comes in the form a phrase or clause at the beginning or end of a sentence.  It will be easiest for you to understand the problem of the dangling modifier if I show you some examples. For your convenience, I’ve highlighted the dangling modifiers in green.

Continuing with our analogy from above, check out this example:

Bad ExampleWearing a diaper and sunscreen on their bald heads, they went to the beach.

Dangling Modifier

We know this is not a case of a misplaced modifier, because simply moving the modifying clause does not help the problem.  Look at this revision:

Bad ExampleThey went to the beach wearing a diaper and sunscreen on their bald heads.

This sentence is still incorrect. We don’t know who is wearing the diaper and it appears that the diaper is still being worn on someone’s bald head.

To fix this mess, we have to completely rewrite the sentence. Here is a revision that makes sense:

Good exampleGary and his grandson went to the beach wearing sunscreen on their bald heads, and his grandson wore a diaper.

We fixed a few things in this revision. First, we defined our subjects and made it clear that Gary took his grandson to the beach. Second, we made sure that the diaper was being worn by the grandson and was not on either Gary’s or his grandson’s head.

Let me give you a couple more examples of dangling modifiers:

Bad ExampleI just received a dozen farm fresh eggs from a client, and one of them was laid yesterday.

In this sentence, it seems that the client laid the farm fresh eggs. Unless the client is a chicken (or a dinosaur, duck, or snake), this is pretty funny‚Ķnot to mention impossible! This dangling modifier is dangling out of context because we don’t know who laid the egg in this sentence. Sure, we can infer that it was probably a chicken, but the sentence doesn’t make this clear.  Here is a revision:

Good exampleMy client just gave me a dozen farm fresh eggs, and his chicken laid one of them yesterday.

We add the chicken to this sentence in order to remove the dangling modifier and make the meaning clear. We also kept the client from laying eggs.

How about this example:

Bad ExampleI fed some turkey to my puppy and put it in the meat grinder.

Dangling Modifier

In this sentence, the writer sounds like a horrible person. Who feeds turkey to a puppy and then puts the puppy in a meat grinder? Why would anyone do such a thing?

The revision requires a bit of a rewrite to make things right:

Good example
I put some turkey in the meat grinder and fed it to my puppy.

That sounds much more humane, doesn’t it? In this revision we make it clear that the turkey went into the meat grinder (sorry, PETA), and the puppy got a yummy snack.

How to Avoid the Dangling Modifier: A Review

  • Remember, a dangling modifier occurs when the modifying word or phrase doesn’t have enough information in the sentence to give it context.
  • To correct it, rewrite the sentence, and make sure to include the thing that is being modified.
  • Make sure that the modifier and the thing being modified are as close together in the sentence as possible.
  • As a general rule, try not to let anything between the modifier and the thing being modified.

Need more help?  Check out this great video on misplaced and dangling modifiers.

Beware of the dangling modifier. It can turn you from a puppy lover into a puppy eater or cause you to wear a diaper on your head. This lesson should have helped you learn to recognize and avoid the danger of the dangling modifier. However, sometimes one might slip right past you in your writing. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have your writing professionally edited and to save a puppy while you’re at it.



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