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So what is a dangling modifier? This is a grammatical mistake that occurs when a word or phrase modifies (describes, gives details about) the wrong word or no word at all.
The easiest way to understand a dangling modifier is to see some examples:
- While running from the crime scene, the police shot the armed robber.
The underlined phrase in this sentence is modifying “the police." However, it was not the police who were running from the scene. It was the robber who was fleeing the crime.
- An artist who was not successful during his lifetime, people all over the world revere the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh today.
You expect a modifier to directly proceed the word or phrase it is modifying. The underlined modifier in this sentence is describing “people" rather than what it means to modify, “Vincent Van Gogh."
- Having turned in her paper after the deadline, a written excuse from her parents was needed before the teacher would accept the essay.
Here, the sentence does not make sense because the reader does not know who has written the paper and turned it in late. It is unclear what the underlined phrase is meant to modify.
- Cost effective and convenient, many universities are using graduate assistants to teach freshman and sophomore courses.
The underlined modifier of “cost effective and convenient" seems to be describing “many universities." However, it is actually the “teaching assistants" who are cost effective and convenient.
- When only four years old, my father died in an auto accident.
It is obvious that the father could not have been four years old when he died. The underlined modifier is missing a subject and a verb.
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How to Correct Dangling Modifiers
Let's look at ways to correct the example sentences listed above:
- Revision: While running from the crime scene, the armed robber was shot by the police.
Now it is clear who was shot and who did the shooting.
- Revision: Today, people all over the world revere the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, an artist who was not successful during his lifetime.
By rearranging the sentence and putting the modifier at the end rather than the beginning, it is now understood that the phrase modifies “Vincent Van Gogh" rather than “people."
- Revision: Having turned in her paper after the deadline, Emma needed a written excuse from her parents before the teacher would accept the essay.
The sentence now makes it clear who wrote the essay, turned it in late, and needs a written excuse from her parents.
- Revision: Cost effective and convenient, graduate assistants are being used by many universities to teach freshman and sophomore courses.
Rearranging the sentence allows the reader to understand that the introductory phrase is there to describe the graduate assistants.
- Revised: When I was only four years old, my father died in an auto accident.
The revision puts a subject and a verb in the modifier, making clear the meaning of the sentence.
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How to Recognize Dangling Modifiers in Your Writing
Whenever you have a modifier at the front of your sentence (look for descriptive phrases separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma), make sure that what follows the modifier is the thing it modifies. Often, these beginning-of-the-sentence modifiers will contain an “ing" word. Seeing a word ending in “ing" is a clue that you should take the time and verify that the object of your modifier is properly placed. Also, check to see if you have a modifier that needs a subject and verb in order to be understood, such as in the last sentence example.
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Purdue OWL: Dangling Modifiers http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/597/01/
Dangling Modifiers http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/gram_dangling_mod.html
Modifier Placement http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/modifiers.htm
Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers http://www.uvu.edu/owl/infor/pdf/grammar_usage/modifiers.pdf