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A dangling modifier is a word or phrase (often a participle or participial phrase) that doesn't actually modify the word it's intended to modify. In some cases, a dangling modifier refers to a word that doesn't even appear in the sentence. It is also called a dangling participle, hanging modifier, floater, floating modifier, or misrelated participle.
Dangling modifiers are commonly (though not universally) regarded as grammatical errors. One way to correct a dangling modifier is to add a noun phrase that the modifier can logically describe. Another way to correct this grammatical error is to make the modifier part of a dependent clause.
Fixing Dangling Modifiers
Purdue OWL says that to fix dangling modifiers, it's helpful to first explore how a modifier should read in a grammatically correct sentence, giving this example:
- Having finished the assignment, Jill turned on the TV.
This sentence is correctly composed because Jill is the subject, and the phrase having finished the assignment describes Jill. By contrast, a sentence with a dangling modifier might read:
- Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on.
In this sentence, the phrase having finished the assignment is the dangling modifier. A TV cannot finish a homework assignment (at least not with the current state of technology), so the dangling modifier doesn't seem to modify anything in the sentence. You know from the previous sentence that the phrase is supposed to modify Jill. It's Jill, after all, who finished the homework assignment.
Purdue OWL offers another example of a dangling modifier:
- Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.
Who arrived late? Purdue asks. Presumably, a written excuse can't arrive anywhere. To correct the dangling modifier, the writer needs to add something to the sentence, namely, the person who arrived late:
- Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.
In this correctly composed sentence, the reader knows that the team captain arrived late and needs a written excuse. Having thus added the noun-or person who did the action-the writer corrected the sentence and fixed the error of the dangling modifier.
The Problem With Phrases
Your Dictionary notes that phrases-compared to a word or two-often confuse inexperienced writers when it comes to modifiers. For example:
- The very happy boy ran fast.
It's easy to see that happy is an adjective that modifies boy, while very is an adverb that modifies happy. A writer would be unlikely to unintentionally omit the subject of the sentence and write:
- The very happy ran fast.
In this example, these words would constitute a dangling modifier because they don't modify anything in the sentence: The writer has removed the subject boy.
When it comes to phrases, however, it's much easier to unintentionally create a dangling modifier, says Your Dictionary, as in:
- Hoping to garner favor, my parents were unimpressed with the gift.
Note that the sentence does have a subject, my parents. The phrase hoping to garner favor, then, seems to modify the subject, my parents. But on closer inspection, note that the phrase is actually a dangling modifier. The parents were not hoping to garner favor with themselves, so it's left to the reader to wonder: Who is trying to garner favor?
To fix the dangling modifier, add a subject that tells the reader who is hoping to impress the parents:
- Hoping to garner favor, my new boyfriend brought my parents a gift that failed to impress them.
The phrase hoping to garner favor now describes my boyfriend, so it is no longer a dangling modifier. To fully fix the sentence, the writer also added a verb, brought, to describe what the boyfriend was doing and a restrictive clause, that failed to impress them, explaining how the gift went over with the parents.
The Clue of Passive Voice
Sometimes-though not always-you can tell that a sentence contains a dangling modifier if it includes passive voice, as in this example from Grammar Bytes:
- Hungry, the leftover pizza was devoured.
The single-word adjective, hungry, is the dangling modifier in this sentence. A pizza, after all, cannot be hungry or devour itself. So who was hungry? The sentence needs a subject for the modifier to describe, such as these possibilities:
- Hungry, we devoured the leftover pizza.
- Hungry, the team devoured the leftover pizza.
- Hungry, I devoured the pizza.
All of these sentences are correct and eliminate the dangling modifier. In the first, the modifier hungry describes we; in the second, it describes the team; and, in the third, it describes I. With any of the sentences, the reader clearly understands who is hungry.
As noted, dangling modifiers are also called dangling participles. A participle is a verbal that typically ends in -ing (the present participle) or -ed (the past participle). By itself, a participle can function as an adjective (as in "the sleeping baby" or "the damaged pump").
You can sometimes tell that you have a dangling modifier-or dangling participle-by looking to see if the sentence contains such an -ing verbal, says Writing Explained, giving this example:
- Reading the regulations, the dog did not enter the park.
The participial phrase reading the regulations is the dangling modifier because it does not actually modify anything in the sentence. A dog cannot read regulations, so the word or words that reading the regulations modifies have been omitted from the sentence, says the writing and grammar website.