Detangle the Dangle: How to Avoid Misplaced/Dangling Modifiers

In editing my own work and in looking over many essays by other students, I have noticed that misplaced and dangling modifiers are among the most pervasive of grammar errors.

This post will provide an uncomplicated guide to staying away from this problem, which can be easily avoided. I will not attempt to be comprehensive (although I will, to the best of my ability, be exact and accurate). Certain websites and grammar guides, however, are comprehensive in regard to these rules, and I have listed several such sources (see below).

Modifiers are words or phrases (within sentences) that clarify, explain, or elaborate upon a concept. Modifiers add description and/or detail to a sentence.

Modifiers are commonly and easily misplaced. For instance:
After conditioning her hair, Phoebe was able to move her comb through the dense tangle before it dried easily.

“Easily” is the modifier—it should modify the verb “move.” Instead, it appears to modify “dried.” Regardless of whether or not her hair dried easily, the sentence intends to convey that the comb’s movement was easy, so it should read:
After conditioning her hair, Phoebe was able to move her comb easily through the dense tangle before it dried.

To place modifiers correctly, one does not need to memorize a litany of rules. Paying close attention (to constructing sentences that succeed in conveying their intended meanings) will suffice.

Dangling modifiers occur (most commonly at the beginning of a sentence) when a phrase or clause that functions as an adjective fails to modify a word that is clearly stated in the sentence.

For instance:
Having finished their venison, the dessert was served.

This dangling modifier leaves us with an important question: Who finished the venison?  Whoever they are, that’s whom the phrase is trying to modify (to no effect, because a phrase cannot modify something unless it shows up in the sentence).

To correct, specify:
Having finished their venison, the duchesses and baronesses were served dessert.

Misplaced/dangling modifiers detract from the quality of academic and creative writing across the disciplines. Avoid this pitfall!

For more information on correct modifier usage, consult The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, or Easy Writer by Andrea Lunsford. Alternatively, consult the Purdue Owl or the University of Ottawa’s Writing Center site. The information in this post can also be found in these sources. The examples are my own.

-By Benjamin Soloway ’13

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