What Is a Dangling Modifier? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Dangling Modifier

A dangling modifier is a modifier that has nothing to modify.

dangling modifier examples

A modifier is meant to describe a word or make its meaning more specific. A modifier cannot do that if the word does not exist. In other words, a dangling modifier is an error caused by failing to use the word that the modifier is meant to be modifying.

Easy Examples of Dangling Modifiers

All the dangling modifiers on this page are shaded.
  • Upon entering the room, a skeleton caught my eye.
  • (Nothing in this sentence entered the room. The skeleton didn't. My eye didn't.)
  • Having followed a strict diet, her weight dropped rapidly.
  • (Nothing in this sentence followed a strict diet. Her weight didn't.)

Other Terms for Dangling Modifier

Dangling modifiers are also known as "hanging modifiers," "floating modifiers," or "dangling participles." Dangling modifiers contrast with:
  • Misplaced Modifiers. A misplaced modifier does not link clearly to what it is meant to modify.
    • John hit the man with the cream cake.
    • (Did the man get a cream cake in the face or was he the one with the cream cake? With a misplaced modifier, the thing being modified is present (this is how it differs from a dangling modifier), but the modifier does not link to it clearly.)
  • Squinting Modifiers. A squinting modifier could feasibly modify the text to its left or right.
    • Talking quickly annoys people.
    • (Does quick talking annoy people or does talking annoy people quickly?)
Remember that with a dangling modifier, the thing being modified is not present.

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing this lesson on dangling modifiers:

Real-Life Examples of Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers usually occur because writers get ahead of themselves. They assume the thing they're talking about is so obvious from the context, they forget to mention it.
  • Having read your letter, my cat will stay indoors until the ducklings fly off.
  • (It's pretty clear that the cat's owner read the letter, but the owner is not mentioned. Therefore, "Having read your letter" is a dangling modifier. It doesn't apply to anything in the sentence. Neither cats nor ducklings can read.)
A correct version would be:
  • Having read your letter, we will keep our cat indoors until the ducklings fly off.
  • (Here, "Having read your letter" modifies "we.")
Here is another dangling modifier:
  • Packing my kit into three huge holdalls, my little Jack Russell could tell a long trip was coming.
  • (Nothing in this sentence packed the kit. Therefore, "Packing my kit into three huge holdalls" is a dangling modifier. It doesn't apply to anything.)
A correct version would be:
  • Packing my kit into three huge holdalls, I knew my little Jack Russell could tell a long trip was coming.
It can get tricky. Look at this example of a dangling modifier:
  • Meticulous and punctual, David's work ethic is admirable.
  • (Here, the missing word is "David" because "David" is not the head noun in the phrase "David's work ethic." "Meticulous and punctual" is modifying the head noun "ethic." The sentence tells us that David's work ethic is meticulous and punctual, which is illogical.)
A correct version would be:
  • Meticulous and punctual, David has an admirable work ethic.
  • (Here, the modifier "Meticulous and punctual" is modifying "David" as it should, not "David's work ethic.")
Sometimes, a modifier can dangle a bit. This happens when the word being modified is present but not next to its modifier.
  • Vicious smelly creatures with huge tusks, the ship's crew found it difficult to drive the male walruses from the beach.
  • (This is actually a misplaced modifier. The modifier is not dangling fully because the thing being modified ("the male walruses") is present.)
Read more about misplaced modifiers.
Read about squinting modifiers.

Is a Dangling Modifier Really a Mistake?

Dangling modifiers don't usually lead to ambiguity because the missing term is nearly always implicit or even mentioned, either in a recent sentence or in the form of possessive determiner. Let's re-examine two of the examples from above.
  • Having followed a strict diet, her weight dropped rapidly.
  • (We've marked this example as wrong, but the word "her" refers to the person who followed a strict diet. Therefore, technically, the thing being modified is mentioned.)
  • Having read your letter, my cat will stay indoors until the ducklings fly off.
  • (In this example, the word "my" refers to the person who read the letter. Therefore, technically, the thing being modified is mentioned.)
This is used by some grammarians to claim that most dangling modifiers (i.e., the ones in which the thing being modified is sufficiently obvious) are not mistakes.

Why Should I Care about Dangling Modifiers?

Notwithstanding what some grammarians think, we think that using a dangling modifier will tell your grammar-savvy readers that you're not a clear thinker.

Also, knowing about dangling modifiers allows you to tell your boss or your mates that they've used a dangling modifier, which surely is a win in anyone's book. In terms of its ability to score you some points, it's probably only trumped by squinting modifier.

To ensure you don't use a dangling modifier yourself, assume any modifier you use is dangling until you've nailed it to the term its modifying.
  • Walking through the cemetery, the trees became long-fingered ghouls.
  • (If you were writing this sentence, you should have warning bells sounding before reaching the end of "trees.")
Here are some versions without the dangling modifier:
  • Walking through the cemetery, I saw the trees become long-fingered ghouls.
  • As I walked through the cemetery, the trees became long-fingered ghouls.
  • (Often, it's best to sidestep the modifier by rewording.)
To avoid a misplaced modifier, put your modifier next to (typically to the left of) the term it's modifying. For example:
  • While crossing the road, the bus hit Janet.
  • ("Janet" is present. Therefore, this is a misplaced modifier, i.e., it's not fully dangling.)
  • While crossing the road, Janet was hit by the bus.
  • (This is one option for putting the modifier next to "Janet." It's much tidier.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are modifiers? What is a misplaced modifier? What is a squinting modifier? What is a limiting modifier? Glossary of grammatical terms