Dangling Modifiers and How to Fix Them
Strengthen your writing by avoiding this common — and glaring — grammatical error
Poorly constructed sentences are the bane of proofreaders, copy editors and pretty much any other word nerds out there. Truth is, readers are irritated by poorly constructed sentences as well — whether or not they understand what’s robbing such sentences of their clarity and intended meaning. Luckily the primary culprit — the dreaded dangling modifier — is easy for a writer to spot…when the writer takes the time to give certain sentences a closer look.
In, “Tips to Help You Fix Broken Sentence,” I suggest putting “your imagination to work as you read a sentence” and state, “The key is to listen closely to how your sentences sound when you read them, imagine breaking them into pieces, and play around with their building blocks — the words and phrases that compose them.” I also discuss the primary issue related to broken sentences — dangling modifiers.
While it’s important to understand why dangling modifiers are problematic, it’s also important to keep such discussions simple. For this reason, I’d rather show the issue to you before trying to explain it. Consider the following sorry sentence: “Pedaling down the street, the rain began to fall all around Jim.” Simply put, “Pedaling down the street” is a dangling modifier.
In every case of a dangling modifier, a writer is at fault for failing to give the modifier something legitimate to modify. While “the rain” is a noun and therefore could be modified as in “the cold rain fell” or “it was a light rain,” rain can’t possibly pedal anything. For this reason, a dangling modifier was created when “the rain” was placed immediately after “Pedaling down the street.”
So how to fix such a sentence? “Jim” at the end of our example sentence hints that someone named Jim is pedaling something, and “pedaling” hints that the something is a bike. For these reasons, the sentence could be correctly rewritten this way: “As Jim was pedaling down the street, the rain began to fall all around him.” (To tighten this up even further and make it more immediate, you could write, “As Jim pedaled down the street, the rain fell all around him.”)
Either suggested correction is much better than the sentence with a dangling modifier. Here are two more examples that show how to remove dangling modifiers:
- Incorrect: “Staring at the picture, the scene reminded him of something important.” Correct: “As he stared at the picture, he was reminded of something important.” Or “Staring at the picture, he remembered something important.” Or even “The picture reminded him of something important.”
- Incorrect: “Tired and sad, the store was the last place she wanted to be.”
Correct: “Tired and sad, she found the store was the last place she wanted to be.”
Dangling modifiers are easy to spot when you slow down and really read what’s being said. It makes no sense for a scene to stare at anything, so that red flag indicates the first incorrect sentence needs to be fixed by clarifying who or what is staring. In the second incorrect sentence, it’s impossible for a store to be tired and sad (though one can certainly look tired and sad), so a close reading reveals the need to identify what or who is feeling that way.
In the last example, the opening phrase (“tired and sad,”) begins with an adjective. The two other examples of poorly constructed sentences in this post begin with verbs (“pedaling” and “staring”). When trying to spot dangling modifiers in your writing, watch out for phrases that begin with adjectives or verbs and are set off by a comma (or two when the phrase is in the middle of a sentence). Such a phrase may require special attention to ensure it modifies the correct person or thing and not some other random noun (such as “the rain,” “the scene,” or “the store”).
Your readers will thank you.
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I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction when I’m not working as a copy editor. Author of the novel One Sister’s Song and the e-book Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing.