Wednesday, November 16, 2011

dangling and misplaced modifiers

Do these sentences look and sound right to you?

1. As a child, it was difficult to study.

2. The young girl was walking the dog in a short skirt. (credit here)

3. Unable to come to an agreement, it was decided that Congress should adjourn for the day.

4. While sleeping, someone knocked on my door.

5. The grandmother was talking to her five-year-old grandson who liked Cuban cigars.

6. Looking over the cliff's edge, Josh felt queasy.

Only one of the above sentences features correct grammar; the other five contain either misplaced or dangling modifiers. By the time you finish reading this blog post, you ought to be able to go back to these sentences and pick out (1) which sentence among the six is correct, and (2) what type of error is found in the other five sentences. Let's talk about dangling and misplaced modifiers.


A modifier is basically a word or phrase that modifies a noun. At the most basic level, an adjective is a modifier. But a modifier might also look something like this:

At seven feet tall, Brian looked like a basketball player.

The italicized portion of the above sentence is the modifier, and it modifies Brian.

Here's an erroneous version of the above sentence:

At seven feet tall, people were awed by Brian's height.

See the problem? The modifier no longer has anything to modify. The subject of the independent clause, people, isn't the noun that should be modified-- the necessary noun is missing! So as the sentence stands, the modifier's left dangling: it's got nothing to latch on to. That's why we call this a dangling modifier. Here are some other examples, with suggested corrections.

WRONG: Screaming into the phone, the coworkers were startled by Janet's sudden rage.
RIGHT: Screaming into the phone, Janet startled her coworkers with her sudden rage.
WHY: The coworkers aren't the ones screaming into the phone, so the subject of the clause should be Janet.

WRONG: Radiating kindness, E.T.'s glowing fingertip healed Elliott's bullet wound.
RIGHT: Radiating kindness, E.T. healed Elliott's bullet wound with his glowing fingertip.
WHY: E.T., the being, is the one radiating kindness; the fingertip merely radiates energy.

WRONG: At a mere twelve years old, people marveled at little Melissa and her two doctoral degrees.
RIGHT: At a mere twelve years old, Melissa-- with her two doctoral degrees-- was a marvel.
WHY: The people aren't the ones who are twelve years old.


Misplaced modifiers represent a somewhat a different problem. In such cases, the modifier and the thing being modified are both in the sentence, but the modifier has been poorly placed, thereby altering the sentence's meaning, often in an inadvertently humorous way. Example:

The police chased the dogs in their police car.

Who's in the police car? Given that a modifier should be placed as closely as possible to the thing it's modifying, the above sentence might be read as: "The dogs got in the police car and drove it away; the policemen gave chase on foot."

A better version of the above sentence might be:

In their police car, the police chased the dogs.

Some more examples, with corrections:

WRONG: I had to take down the shutters painting the house yesterday. (credit here)
RIGHT: Painting the house yesterday, I had to take down the shutters.
WHY: The shutters weren't painting the house. (Unless this is a Disney cartoon or something.)

WRONG: On her way home, Jan found a gold man's watch. (credit here)
RIGHT: On her way home, Jan found a man's gold watch.
WHY: The man isn't made of gold; the watch is!

WRONG: The patient was referred to a psychologist with several emotional problems. (credit here)
RIGHT: The patient with several emotional problems was referred to a psychologist.
WHY: Who, exactly, has the emotional problems?

Ready for your quiz? Look at the six sentences at the beginning of this post. Can you tell which sentences have dangling modifiers in them? (Highlight for the answer: 1, 3, and 4.)

Can you tell which sentences have misplaced modifiers? (Highlight for the answer: 2 and 5.)

Can you tell which sentence is correct? (Highlight for the answer: it's Sentence 6.)

Think about how you might correct the erroneous sentences. Remember that more than one correction may be possible; the point is to eliminate the error while preserving the intended meaning. Good luck!


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