The Common Grammatical Error That Even Editors Make: Dangling Modifiers and How to Correct Them
Dangling modifiers often go unnoticed and can be tricky to correct when detected. Indeed, even some editors-in-training leave dangling modifiers in their work!
What is a dangling modifier?
A dangling modifier is a phrase that modifies a word that is not in the sentence (though it might be implied) or modifies the incorrect word. When this happens, the sentence can be confusing or ambiguous. Here is an example:
‘Running down the street, the tree caught my attention.’
In this sentence, the phrase ‘running down the street’ is a dangling modifier because it is not attached to the noun that it modifies. The sentence suggests that the tree was running down the street, which is obviously not the intended meaning.
Dangling modifiers can be challenging to spot in your writing, as the writer often has a clear idea of what they meant to say. However, they can confuse the reader and detract from the overall clarity and professionalism of your writing.
How to correct dangling modifiers
Here are a few strategies for correcting dangling modifiers in your writing.
The first step in correcting a dangling modifier is to identify the subject of the sentence. (The subject is the noun or pronoun that performs the action of the verb.) Once you have identified the subject, you can ensure the modifying phrase is attached to it.
If the modifying phrase is not attached to the subject, you can move it closer to the subject to create a more explicit connection. For example:
‘Distracted by the scenery, the book was forgotten.’
This sentence could be corrected by moving the modifying phrase closer to the subject:
‘Distracted by the scenery, I forgot about the book.’
If moving the modifier is not possible or would result in an awkward sentence, you may need to rewrite the sentence entirely. Here is an example:
‘After finishing his dinner, the television was turned on.’
This sentence could be rewritten to make the connection between the modifier and the subject clearer:
‘After finishing his dinner, he turned on the television.’
Another way to avoid dangling modifiers is to be specific in your language. Use clear and specific nouns and verbs to prevent confusion. For example:
‘Swimming in the ocean, the beach was beautiful.’
This sentence is confusing because it is unclear what ‘the beach’ refers to. To be more specific, you could write:
‘Swimming in the ocean, I thought the beach was beautiful.’
One of the most effective ways to catch dangling modifiers is to read your writing out loud. This will help you identify awkward or confusing phrases that need to be revised.
Squinting modifiers and dangling modifiers
Wondering what the difference is between a squinting modifier and a dangling modifier?
While dangling and squinting modifiers are both misplaced modifiers, they are not the same thing. The main difference between the two is where the modifier is placed in the sentence.
A dangling modifier is a phrase that does not have a clear relationship with the rest of the sentence, often because the noun or pronoun that it is intended to modify is missing.
Conversely, a squinting modifier is a modifier that is positioned in such a way that it could modify either the word that comes before it or the word that comes after it. This can lead to ambiguity and confusion.
You must be clear and specific in your writing to avoid these errors. When using modifiers, make sure that they are placed close to the word they are intended to modify and that the relationship between the two is clear. If you are unsure whether a modifier is correctly placed, try rewording the sentence or asking a trusted colleague or professional editor for feedback.