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Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

Updated on January 8, 2014

Hello, kids.

The word "modifier" (or modified) gets thrown around a lot when teaching grammar. Essentially, it refers to anytime a word or phrase is altered. Most of the time we modify a word intentionally. For example, we know that if we were to write about a past event, we would not say I jump, unless, of course we are writing a story from the present perspective. Oh, language. We would modify (change) our verb to jumped. There may be a better way to define modifier, but I have always believed in explaining things in ways that make the simplest sense.

For this sake of this hub, I will just explore phrases and the two types of mistakes with modifiers: misplaced and dangling.

Look at this sentence:

Charlie sat down on the couch holding a glass of water.

What do you picture? Some of you pictured Charlie holding the glass of water, and some of you pictured the couch holding a glass of water.

Logic tells us that it is Charlie, not the couch, who is holding the glass of water, but this sentence actually tells us the couch is holding the glass of water.

Now, look at this sentence:

Charlie, holding a glass of water, sat down on the couch.

Now I imagine (hope/believe) that you all saw Charlie holding the glass of water. The phrase "holding a glass of water" is adding more information about Charlie. When it is placed next to the noun it is modifying, the sentence makes grammatical sense.

Another one?

My father let the dog out of the house wearing his boxers.

This one has three possible interpretations of who or what is wearing his boxers. Is it the house? The dog? Or, my father? (Technically the house wins!) All three images are quite silly. But let's pretend that it is, indeed, my father.

My father, wearing his boxers, let the dog out of the house.

Much clearer, right?

The two phrases - wearing his boxers and holding a glass of water - are present participle modifiers, if you cared to know.

Charlene spoke to the man across the table with dirty hands.

It's obvious who has the dirty hands, right?


Charlene spoke to the man with dirty hands who sat across the table.

How many of you thought it was going to be Charlene? "With dirty hands" is a prepositional phrase modifier, FYI.

Covered with dust, I cleaned my table.

This sentence says that I was covered with dust, when it was, in fact, my table.

Covered with dust, my table needed cleaning.

These types of modifiers, with "ed" endings on the main verb, such as bored with life, overwhelmed with all his projects, and unsatisfied with his progress are examples of past participle modifiers. Say these words in front of your friends and see them look for other people to visit.

Wilma introduced Betty who became her husband to Barney.

This is a misfire of a punctuated sentence. But, it points out that relative pronouns (those starting with who, whom, whose, which, or that) can introduce misplaced modifiers.

Wilma introduced Betty to Barney, who became her husband.

Correct, yes?

Not quite.

Barney married Betty. In this sentence, unless you know The Flinstones, you may not know who married whom.

Wilma introduced Betty to Barney, who became Betty's husband. "Who became Betty's husband" is modifying Barney.

I just threw that one in as a reminder to be clear in your writing.

Do you get the gist of misplaced modifiers? When separated from the word they are meant to modify, the sentence can become confusing or even silly. This one is my favorite from the textbook I use for my class:

I saw the Golden Gate Bridge riding my bike.

Now, let's move on to dangling modifiers. These are so named because they leave the modifier just "hanging there," with no logical subject performing an action.

Jumping with joy, the news of the publication of his first literary collection was spread.


So, who's jumping with joy? This sentence needs a logical subject. To do this, three things need to happen.

1) Locate the modifier. It's "jumping with joy."

2) Assign it a logical subject. It's John. He deserves a break.

3) Reword the sentence so a logical subject (John) performs the action.

Jumping with joy, John shared the news that his first literary collection was published.

Reading the Yahoo webpage, there is a lot of talk about the presidential candidates.

We know what this means, but it is an example of a dangling modifier. Exactly who is reading?

Reading the Yahoo webpage, I noticed a lot of talk about the presidential candidates.

(Coming up with examples for dangling modifiers is challenging. I just edited one that was really a misplaced modifier posing as a dangling modifier. Those sneaky modifiers.)

Flipping through the pages in the song book, "All Through the Night" looked interesting.

To whom did it look interesting? To Terry.

Flipping through the pages in the song book, Terry thought "All Through the Night" was an interesting choice to sing.

When thinking of modifiers, the importance of exact language is really important. (Don't analyze the previous sentence.) I know one could argue that we understand what sentences are trying to say, but why make people do that mental work? Make it clear what you want to say and modify your sentences correctly.

Oh, and one more thing.


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