Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Dangling Modifiers


A dangling (or misplaced) modifier can cause confusion and, often, unintentional hilarity. It’s a word or phrase that’s supposed to describe one thing but, because of how its sentence is written, actually describes something else—often in a way that’s ridiculous, impossible, or absurd.

Harold Lloyd hanging from clock

How to Spot a Dangler


By the rules of English grammar, a descriptive word or group of words (a modifying phrase) always refers to the closest noun or pronoun.

  • Glowing and beeping, we stared up at the alien craft in awe.

The pronoun closest to the modifying phrase glowing and beeping is we. No matter what its writer’s intention may have been, this sentence says we were the ones glowing and beeping, not the alien craft.

How to Un-dangle a Dangler


To fix the last example, we need to rearrange the sentence so the word being described is close to the phrase describing it.

Glowing and beeping, the alien craft hovered while we stared up at it in awe.


X
Upon entering the crypt, my hair stood on end.

Technically, upon entering the crypt describes hair, which admittedly did enter the crypt but presumably not under its own steam. What did enter the crypt was the speaker, who needs to be added to the sentence.

Upon entering the crypt, I felt my hair stand on end.



X
Working in her underwater lair, Dr. Megatroid’s sinister plans soon bore fruit.

Don’t let possessives confuse you. In this sentence it’s not Dr. Megatroid but her plans that are working.

Working in her underwater lair, Dr. Megatroid soon saw her sinister plans bear fruit.



X
A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned—until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Who is the high-wire artist, the man or the woman? As the sentence is written, it’s the man.

Knowing she was a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned—until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Now the modifying phrase does describe the closest pronoun, he.

Because she was a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned—until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Here the modifying phrase has been changed to a subordinate clause.


X
Having mastered the tango and the two-step, learning the electric slide was his next goal.

What does having mastered the tango and the two-step describe here? It describes learning the electric slide, which of course makes no sense. (Learning the electric slide is a gerund phrase, which means it acts as a noun.) The unstated he needs to be added, or the modifying phrase needs to be changed to a subordinate clause.

Having mastered the tango and the two-step, he set learning the electric slide as his next goal.
Since he had mastered the tango and the two-step, learning the electric slide was his next goal.

Early 19th-century illustration of dancers


X
Shaking off her trance, the spirits were scattered in every direction.
Shaking off her trance, she scattered the spirits in every direction.

X
Donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.
Donning his superhero mask, he was overcome by a sense of his own silliness.
While he was donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.

Hard-to-Spot Danglers


As in the previous examples, danglers are usually found at the beginning of sentences; however, like Bolshevik spies, they may be lurking anywhere.

X
Providing enough exercise can be a challenge for owners of dogs with small apartments.

Dogs do not, as of this writing, rent apartments, small or otherwise.

Providing enough exercise can be a challenge for dog owners with small apartments.

Participial Prepositions


Sometimes a word or phrase can modify an entire sentence rather than a single noun or pronoun. These participial prepositions—phrases that start with words like assuming, based on, depending, given, including, owing to, and provided—have built-in gravity boots: they never dangle.

Regarding the proposed orgy, it was generally felt that dim lighting would be best for all concerned.
Concerning his wayward daughter who had run off with a fallen seraph, he would only put a hand over his eyes and mutter about feathers.
Barring unusual weather, the balloon should reach Abyssinia by Thursday.

Illustration of early balloonists

Your intentions as a writer may seem obvious to you, but that doesn’t mean they’re obvious to your readers, who may become confused by dangling modifiers or, worse, laugh at them.



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