Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

The following sentences all illustrate the dreaded dangling or misplaced modifier. A dangling modifier sounds like something you could be arrested for, but it’s just a minor stylistic mistake.  A modifier is a word or group of words that modifies (describes or limits) another word or group of words. In the sentence, “I have a blue hat,” the adjective “blue” modifies the noun “hat.”  In the sentence, “The man riding the camel is my cousin,” the phrase “riding the camel,” modifies “man.” A dangling or misplaced modifier either has nothing in the sentence it can reasonably modify, or it is too far away from the word or group of words it is supposed to modify.  Careless writing can produce dangling and misplaced modifiers, sometimes with amusing results.

  1. Slipping on the ice, my glasses were broken.
  2. Having been raised in a barn, it is difficult for him to choose the right fork.
  3. Expressing your thoughts clearly impressed the selection committee.
  4. People who read grammar blogs frequently make fewer mistakes.
  5. To get ahead these days, a good education or winning a lottery is a big help.
  6. Rachel saw a large rabbit on the way to the supermarket.
  7. Having acquired a cat, our carpet is now in shreds.
  8. Our neighbour dropped by while I was cleaning the floor with an apple pie.
  9. The meeting was a great success, having prepared the agenda carefully.
  10. Juan only drinks three cups of coffee in the morning.

Let’s look at each sentence:

 

  1. The phrase “slipping on the ice” is dangling because it has nothing to modify in the rest of the sentence. Did my glasses slip on the ice?
  2. Who was raised in a barn? “Having been raised in a barn” is a dangling modifier.
  3. This sentence has a misplaced modifier called a “squinting modifier.” Does “clearly” modify “expressing your thoughts” or “impressed the committee”?
  4. “Frequently” is another squinting modifier.
  5. Who will get ahead? “To get a good education” is another dangling modifier.
  6. Was Rachel or the rabbit on the way to the supermarket?
  7. What do you use to clean your floor?
  8. Did the carpet acquire the cat?
  9. Who prepared the agenda?
  10. What else does Juan do with the three cups of coffee besides drink them? “Only” is frequently misplaced. Here it belongs just before “three cups of coffee.” But one can argue that this misplacement of “only” doesn’t really result in any ambiguity.

 

Try revising the sentences to eliminate the misplaced and dangling modifiers and compare your revisions with mine.

 

  1. Slipping on the ice, I broke my glasses.
  2. Having been raised in a barn, he has difficulty choosing the right fork.
  3. The clarity with which you expressed your thoughts impressed the selection committee.
  4. People who frequently read grammar bogs make fewer mistakes.
  5. To get ahead these days, you need to get a good education or win a lottery.
  6. On the way to the supermarket, Rachel saw a large rabbit.
  7. Our neighbour dropped by with an apple pie while I was cleaning the floor.
  8. Having acquired a cat, we now have a carpet that is in shreds.
  9. The meeting was a great success because the chair carefully prepared the agenda.
  10. Juan drinks only three cups of coffee in the morning.
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4 thoughts on “Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

  1. OK, Alan, you know (and love) me as the archetypal (archetypic? …. no, I see this is underlined in red!) pedant, so I should nod my head in agreement with at least most of your examples here. But the great linguist, Alan Rutkowski, taught me ages ago that as long as the meaning of a sentence is obvious, chill!! In all the above examples, the meaning is clear: We know that the glasses didn’t slip on the ice; we know that it was Rachel and not the rabbit who was on the way to the supermarket, etc …. OK, maybe you have to think for a minute to get # 4, and to which part “frequently” is attached….But is this not your mantra: If the meaning is clear, don’t get your knickers in a twist!?

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  2. But a dangling modifier can bring a smile to a reader’s face, and that effect isn’t usually part of the intended meaning. I say in my explanation that dangling and misplaced modifiers are a minor stylistic mistake. Whether to be concerned about them at all depends on how seriously one takes being careful and precise in one’s writing. It’s little like wardrobe choices. How careful we are about what we wear depends on where we’re going.

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  3. Indeed, and your quote of the day (8 Sept) is an excellent answer to my question here…. I was going to say this as a comment to that (honest!), but I see that you said it here for my benefit (and all that!).

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