Common Usage Dilemmas

Dangling Modifiers: Counterintelligence

What's wrong with the following sentence?

  • Coming up the hall, the clock struck 10.

As written, the sentence states that the clock was coming up the hall. An ambulatory clock is possible, but neither highly likely nor terribly desirable. This misunderstanding about the clock's power of locomotion occurs because the phrase “coming up the hall” has nothing to modify or describe. A phrase left twisting in the wind like this is called a dangling modifier.

Remember that a modifier is a word or phrase that gives more information about the subject, verb, or object in a clause. A modifier is said to “dangle” when the word it modifies is not actually in the sentence. “Coming up the hall” is a dangling modifier because it cannot be attached to any word in the sentence.

You Could Look It Up

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that describes something that has been left out of the sentence. A clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb. See Clauses for a detailed description of clauses.

Dangling modifiers confuse your readers and obscure your meaning. These errors don't jump out at you like a spelling blooper or a shark attack; rather, they sneak up on you like April 15 or middle age. And they can be just as deadly.

Help Is on the Way

Because the basic problem with a dangling modifier is a lack of connection, you must provide a noun or pronoun to which the dangling construction can be attached. There are two basic ways to do this:

  1. Rewrite the modifier as a subordinate clause.
    • Dangling: Confirming our conversation, the shipment will be ordered on Monday.
    • (According to this sentence, the shipment—not the speaker—confirmed the conversation.)
    • Correct: As I stated in the memo, the shipment will be ordered on Monday.
  2. Rewrite the main clause so the subject or object can be modified by the now-dangling phrase.
    • Dangling: Confirming our conversation, the shipment will be ordered on Monday.
    • Correct: Confirming our conversation, I have arranged for the shipment to be ordered on Monday.

Man the Battle Stations

Time to play, so let's have some fun. Correct each of these dangling constructions by rewriting the modifier as a subordinate clause or rewriting the main clause so the subject or object can be modified by the now-dangling phrase.

  1. Do not sit in the chair without being fully assembled.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  2. Locked in a vault for 50 years, the owner of the coins decided to sell them.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  3. Important facts might be revealed when leaving.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  4. Making startling new discoveries in science, the Renaissance was a time of rebirth.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  5. While driving down the highway, a bad collision was seen.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  6. While eating dinner, a fly slipped into her soup.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  7. The tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh commanded attention coming into the exhibit.
    • ____________________________________________________________________
  8. Sailing up the river, the Statue of Liberty was seen.
    • ____________________________________________________________________

Answers

Possible responses:

  1. You should not sit in the chair unless it is fully assembled.
  2. The owner decided to sell his coins, which had been locked in a vault for 50 years.
  3. You might reveal important facts when you leave.
  4. The Renaissance was a time of rebirth when people made startling new discoveries in science.
  5. While we were driving down the highway, we saw a bad collision.
  6. While Cecile was eating dinner, a fly slipped into her soup.
  7. The tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh commanded our attention as we came into the exhibit.
  8. As we sailed up the river, we saw the Statue of Liberty.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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