What Is a Dangling Modifier? (with Examples)
Dangling ModifierA dangling modifier is a modifier that has nothing to modify.
Easy Examples of Dangling ModifiersAll 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 ModifierDangling 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?)
Real-Life Examples of Dangling ModifiersDangling 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.)
- Having read your letter, we will keep our cat indoors until the ducklings fly off. (Here, "Having read your letter" modifies we.)
- 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.)
- Packing my kit into three huge holdalls, I knew my little Jack Russell could tell a long trip was coming.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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 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.)
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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)