Dangling Modifiers

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What are modifiers?

To understand what dangling modifiers are, you must first understand what a modifier is in the first place. Modifiers are adjectives or adverbs that modify, limit or provide additional information about something. They are also phrases or clauses that provide additional information. These groupings of words are often found as dependent clauses or introductory phrases at the beginning of sentences; although, modifying phrases or clauses can also appear at the end of a sentence.

How does a modifier dangle?

A modifier describes, limits or provides additional information about a word. For a modifier to work properly, it must have the word it modifies present in the sentence. When this word is missing, a modifier is dangling. The word modified is essentially the person or thing doing the action, so a missing modifier is when the person or thing doing the action is not in the sentence. While catching a dangling modifier is an easy correction in short sentences because it is easy to spot, it proves a more common grammatical error in longer, more complex sentences. You can identify dangling modifiers by locating the first noun that follows the modifier and determining if it makes sense. Consider the following:

Example 1: The sad is very young.

In Example 1, there is a very obvious dangling modifier. “Sad” is the modifier, but worded in this way, the sentence leaves your readers asking “the sad what?” The person that is sad is added to the sentence to correct the grammar mishap, so the sentence is written as “the sad boy is very young.”

Example 2: Planning on making the trip safely, the car is given a thorough inspection prior to the trip.

In Example 2, the modifier is “planning on making the trip safely.” When you ask the question “who is planning on making the trip safely,” the answer the way the sentence is written is “the car.” The car obviously cannot make plans, so a dangling modifier exists. See the below section on correcting dangling modifiers to see the three ways to correct this example.

Ways to correct them

When dangling modifiers appear within your writing, they cause confusion and create unintended, often illogical, meaning. There are three ways you can correct a dangling modifier to return the sense to your sentences.

  1. Combine the modifying clause or phrase with the main clause and add the missing person or thing to create one longer main clause to eliminate the dangling modifier. Reword the sentence as necessary.

    Example: She gave the car a thorough inspection prior to the trip to help ensure the trip is made safely.

  2. Keep the modifying phrase intact, and add the person or thing that is modified directly after it. The modifier is no longer dangling when you do this. Reword the sentence as necessary.

    Example: Planning on making the trip safely, she gave the car a thorough inspection prior
    to the trip.

  3. Rewrite the sentence with the person or thing doing the action in the modifying phrase or clause to keep the modifier from dangling. Reword the sentence as necessary.

    Example: When she is planning to make the trip safely, the car is given a thorough inspection prior to the trip.

Ways to identify them

There are four questions you can ask yourself when you are checking to see if you have a dangling modifier. They include:

  1. Does the phrase or clause modify the closest noun?
  2. Is the sentence logical?
  3. Is the noun that follows the modifier capable of performing the action?
  4. Is the person or thing performing action identified?

These four questions help you identify dangling modifiers, so you can more easily know when you need to correct them. The questions are especially helpful when you are dealing with more complex and longer sentence structures. When you can apply the correction of this common grammatical error to your writing, you return the sense to your writing and help prevent your readers from growing confused.