One of the funnier writing gaffs is the dangling modifier. If you’ve ever read a sentence that feels off and actually gives the impression of something impossible and often hysterical—odds are you’ve caught somebody’s modifier dangling.
Modifiers are words that describe other words, such as adjectives that describe nouns, or adverbs that describe adjectives or verbs. We use them all the time in our writing.
The trouble comes when we have them modifier the wrong noun, verb, or adjective. Such as:
Bob spotted the shotgun standing in the bar. (Um, who’s standing in the bar?)
The man walked through the door wearing a fake mustache. (Why would a door need to wear a disguise?)
I once met a man with a wooden leg named Smith. (For Mary Poppins fans…what was the name of his other leg?)
At best, readers need a minute to figure out what we really meant, at worst, then get yanked out of the story trying to understand whatever crazy thing we’ve actually written. And then they laugh at us.
Spotting Dangling Modifiers in Our Writing
Aside from keeping an ear out for anything that doesn’t seem quite right, there are a few common places we see dangling or misplaced modifiers.
Introductory clauses that forget to add the person (or subject): Since we know who is doing the action of a sentence, we sometimes forget to add them. Such as:
She set the animal down and opened the cage. With a fond farewell, the small fox scampered to freedom.
This reads as if the fox called a farewell, since the “With a fond farewell” modifies “fox.” But really, it’s the woman who opened the cage who says farewell. To fix, we’d add her back in and rework the sentence.
She called a fond farewell as the small fox scampered to freedom.
We often spot a lot of verb-ing words here, so pay particular attention to any introductory clauses with -ing words.
Running toward the water, the waves lapped at the shore and soothed her soul.
Are the waves running toward the water? Probably not. Try putting the character back in there.
Jane ran toward the water as waves lapped at the shore and soothed her soul.
Descriptive tags tacked onto the end of a sentence: By the nature of how we read, we tend to use the tags and clauses closest to the noun to modify the phrase. So when we have a perfectly good sentence and tack on additional information, the information can refer (modify) the wrong word. Let’s use our examples from above:
The man walked through the door wearing a fake mustache.
“The man walked through the door” is a complete sentence. So “wearing a fake mustache” feels like it refers to the door, not the man. For readers, the sentence is “over” when they reach the word door. Try grouping the words that belong together:
The man wearing a fake mustache walked through the door.
Sometimes grouping the right words together makes the sentence cumbersome, which is why I think these modifiers tend to dangle. They just sound better to our ears the wrong way.
I once met a man with a wooden leg named Smith.
Fixing this results in:
I once met a man named Smith who had a wooden leg.
This is ugly writing and will take a little more work to get it to read correctly. Luckily, a comma in the original sentence can do the trick.
I once met a man with a wooden leg, named Smith.
Now the two pieces of information are separated enough so that the subject is now “a man with a wooden leg” and not simply “a man.”
As fun as dangling modifiers are to read, they’re not so fun in our own writing. They can change the meaning of our sentences and bring the wrong tenor to the moment.
Do you have any favorite dangling modifiers? Have you spotted any recently?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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