Friday, 27 January 2017

On Dangling Modifiers

Today I’m going to talk about something that’s very easy to do, particularly when one is writing at speed. This is the Dangling Modifier.

I not infrequently find a dangling modifier in my own first drafts; there is no shame in doing a few things like this by accident when it is the result of speed. We all have our typical faults; I never can type the work ‘house’ without making it ‘hosue’, either. However, if you fail to correct these things on revision, they have a tremendous ability to make your writing look amateurish.

1. What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies the meaning of another word or phrase. It can be an adjective (modifying a noun) or an adverb (modifying a verb).


The black cat sat on the mat. Here, the adjective “black” modifies the noun “cat”.

The cat sat elegantly on the mat. Here, the adverb “elegantly” modifies the verb “sat”.

2. A modifier need not be a word. It can be a whole phrase.

Having eaten all the fish, the cat sat on the mat.

Here, the phrase “having eaten all the fish” modifies “the cat” in much the same way as an adjective would do.

3. Shared subject

When we use a modifying phrase, the subject of the phrase must be the same as the word we are modifying. In the example above, the subject is the cat. It is the cat who has eaten all the fish.

4. Dangling modifier.

When we write a sentence where the subject of the modifying phrase is not the word that it modifies, we have a “dangling modifier”. The modifier is considered to be ‘dangling’ because it is not attached to the sentence’s subject as it ought to be. It is attached to a subject that is not there, and hence it dangles unsupported.

Looking at the cat, she looks replete, and full of fish.

Here the modifier (the phrase “looking at the cat”) is dangling, because the subject of the main part of the sentence (“she looks replete”) is not the subject of the modifying phrase. It is not “she” who is doing the looking, but someone else.

Stroking her head, she bites me.

Here, the modifier dangles again - the person stroking the cat is not the one who bites.

How To Fix It

It’s a simple matter to correct a dangling modifier. All you need to do is ask yourself who (or what) is the subject of the modifying phrase - in the above example, who is stroking the cat’s head - and who or what is the subject of the main clause - above, who does the biting? If those two people or things are not identical, you know you need to recast the sentence.

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