D is for Dangling Modifier

Yesterday I went to a movie starring George Clooney with Brad Pitt. Popping in the container, we could smell the buttered popcorn, so we got some at the counter that cost $3.00. We ate the popcorn that we had bought slowly. Leaving the theatre, the wind grew cold. Shining brightly in the sky, my date pointed out the full moon. After starting the car, a squirrel ran out from under it. Then we drove the car to my house with chrome wheels.

Modifiers are just what the word implies—words or phrases that modify something else by describing, clarifying or giving more detail. Dangling and misplaced modifiers are words that either haven’t been given a subject to modify, or have been poorly placed in a sentence and describe something you didn’t intend them to modify. I didn’t go to the movie with Brad Pitt or pop in a container. The counter didn’t cost $3.00 and we didn’t buy popcorn slowly. The wind didn’t leave the theatre, my date didn’t shine brightly in the sky, and … well, you get the idea. You know the intent of the above sentences, but they read poorly with the dangling and misplaced modifiers.

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a subject not clearly stated in the sentence. Usually the subject is implied and the writer is assuming that the reader will know what is meant. For example, in the sentence “After starting the car, a squirrel ran out from under it,” after starting the car states an action but doesn’t name the doer of that action. The doer must be the subject of the main clause that follows so in this sentence, it is the squirrel. You know I didn’t mean that the squirrel started the car, so the first phrase is a dangling modifier. The sentence can be easily fixed by adding a subject to the beginning phrase: “After I started the car, a squirrel ran out from under it.” Tip: dangling modifiers frequently contain verbs ending in –ing.

A misplaced modifier causes confusion by falling in the wrong place in a sentence. “Then we drove the car to my house with chrome wheels” is easily fixed by just moving the modifier (chrome wheels) so it directly follows the object it’s really modifying: “Then we drove the car with chrome wheels to my house.” The best way to avoid misplaced modifiers is to place the modifying word(s) as close as possible to the word it qualifies.

At least dangling and misplaced modifiers can provide a laugh to the reader. Here are some amusing examples:

– Walking downstairs, the doorbell rang.
– Having been thrown into the air, the dog caught the ball.
– The closet was empty, having packed everything into the suitcase.
– Pressing the button, the elevator went down to the basement.
– While sleeping, the house caught on fire.
– Flying over the oak tree, the farmer saw the flock of birds that had damaged his crops.
– For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
– Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.
– Buried deep within the earth, the scientists said the blast would be harmless.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know…

– Groucho Marx


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Filed under Grammar by the Letter

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