Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

Image

Source: inkygirl.com

Today I’ve decided to post about dangling modifiers—because I seem to be stumbling across them a lot lately. And they do always make me stumble. They jerk me right out of the narrative I’d hoped to be immersed in and put me in editorial mode. I stop and rewrite the sentence in my head so that the modifier is no longer dangling. Only then can I keep reading and allow myself to be pulled back into the story.

So, what is a dangling modifier? Wikipedia defines the term as “an ambiguous grammatical construct…, whereby a grammatical modifier could be misinterpreted as being associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all.” (Read the whole Wikipedia article here.)

Take this sentence, for example:  Turning the page, his suspense mounted. What does “turning the page” modify here? In terms of the sentence as it is written, it modifies “his suspense.” But, of course, suspense can’t turn a page, right? It is the reader whose suspense is mounting who turned the page. Here are two possibilities for rewriting this sentence to eliminate the dangling modifier:

Turning the page, he felt his suspense mount. (Here the modifier doesn’t dangle, since it has a subject, “he,” to modify.)

As he turned the page, his suspense mounted. (Here we’ve replaced the dangling modifier with a dependent clause that explains who turned the page.)

“Turning the page” is what is called a participial clause, and when placed at the beginning of a sentence as in this example, a participial clause always, always, always modifies the subject of the sentence. If the subject of the sentence is not what your participial clause modifies, rewrite the sentence to either change the subject of the sentence, as in the first rewrite above, or to replace the participial clause as in the second rewrite above.

Now, what about this sentence? Though still cold, she added more ice to the drink. Is “she” cold here or is “the drink” cold? It’s ambiguous, isn’t it? As the sentence is written, the modifier “Though still cold” refers to the subject of the sentence, “she.” But the sense is that the phrase is probably intended to modify “the drink” instead. If that is the case, the sentence could be more accurately written like this:

Though the drink was still cold, she added more ice.

But maybe “she” is cold. The original sentence has no context here. Perhaps, in the story of which the sentence could be a part, a woman who is feeling chilled has decided to add more ice to her drink anyway. Again, rewriting the sentence eliminates any ambiguity.

Though she was still cold, she added more ice to her drink.

Dangling or misplaced modifiers can sometimes be unintentionally humorous. Take this sentence, for example:

I chased the bat in my bathing suit.

Did I give chase because I wanted the bat to take off my bathing suit and give it back to me? Well, probably not. (Although I do confess to using my bathing suit to shoo a bat from my room once. I held the suit in my hands and waved it around to direct the bat toward the door—all of this accompanied by much ducking and screaming.)

But back to the sentence. Because of the placement of the prepositional phrase “in my bathing suit” after the word “bat,” the sentence makes it sound as if the bat is wearing the bathing suit. While that makes for a pretty entertaining image, which could be the germ for a story in which this sentence as written would be accurate and quite funny, the humor in sentences like this is usually unintended. A rewrite is necessary to specify that it is “I” and not “the bat” who is wearing the bathing suit.

So, for the sake of accuracy and clarity—and to keep your readers well and truly immersed in your story—pay attention to the placement of your modifiers. If any are dangling or misplaced, rewrite those sentences so there can be no doubt as to what those modifiers are modifying. Your readers will thank you.

Are you guilty of using dangling modifiers, or do they bother you as much as they do me? What grammatical errors yank you right out of your reading experience?

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I have always used the famous Groucho Marx line to explain misplaced modifiers: “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas–how he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know!”

    • sstamm625 says:

      That is a great one! I decided not to use it, but it felt like something was missing. I’m glad you commented, so at least the line is in the comment thread! 🙂

  2. Proseia says:

    Oh, no. I’m definitely guilty of this dangling business. Great post, though–hopefully I can keep your examples in mind and maybe police my writing a little better. 🙂

  3. L. Marie says:

    I’ve probably dangled a few from time to time. Homophone mistakes usually yank me out of a story–the use of “to” instead of “too” or even “two”; “their” instead of “they’re” or “there.”

    • sstamm625 says:

      Oh, yeah. And even when you know the correct usage, it’s so easy to mistype them as your fingers fly while you’re writing. And spellcheck doesn’t always catch them because they’re real words. Then you just have to hope you or one of your beta readers, copy editors, etc., catches them instead of seeing what they expect to see.

  4. Pingback: New Page! | The Jacquel Rassenworth Blog

  5. Pingback: Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers | Nina Kaytel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s