Dangling Modifiers

In a previous English lesson we discussed misplaced modifiers: descriptive words and phrases that unintentionally describe (modify) the wrong target. Closely related to misplaced modifiers are dangling modifiers. This type of error occurs when a modifier has nothing to modify.  It is left “dangling” without an appropriate word or phrase to describe.

Dangling Modifiers in Action

A dangling modifier can occur when the recipient of the modifier is implied but not explicitly stated in a sentence:

Even after paying for costly repairs, the car still broke down.

This sentence doesn’t tell us who paid for the “costly repairs.” It can’t be the car because cars are incapable of paying for their own repairs. What this example needs is a person for the modifier to modify:

Even after Riley paid for costly repairs, the car still broke down.

Native and non-native English speakers alike often include dangling modifiers when they write sentences in passive voice. Because passive voice relegates what should be the subject of a sentence to the role of object, it can be easy to forget the “real” subject altogether.

Having finished her homework, the TV was turned on.

Who turned on the TV?

Having finished her homework, the TV was turned on by Marie.

Now we have a recipient of the modifier (Marie), but we’ve introduced a misplaced modifier in the process. Taken literally, the sentence now means that the TV finished its homework! This is yet another reason why you should avoid passive voice in your own writing. Shifting this sentence into active voice resolves the misplaced modifier and makes it impossible to create the dangling modifier in the first place:

Having finished her homework, Marie turned on the TV.

Here are a few more examples of dangling modifiers and acceptable revisions:

Dangling: After reading the sources, the article felt misrepresentative of them.

Revised: After reading the sources, I felt that the article misrepresented many of them.

Dangling: Relieved of the stress of work, retirement should be a time to relax.

Revised: Relieved of the stress of work, you should be able to relax during retirement.

Dangling: The convention was a failure, having not planned adequately.

Revised: Because it did not plan adequately, the organization’s first convention was a failure.