What is a dangling modifier?
The term “dangling” means hanging or swinging loosely. A modifier is used to describe or qualify another part of a sentence. Dangling modifiers is a common grammar mistake in writing that make for illogical sentence constructions, usually by leaving a phrase to hang precariously at the beginning of a sentence.1 According to English Grammar, a dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. In other words, if a modifier (word or phrase) modifies (changes the meaning) a different noun or pronoun rather than the targeted one, it will be called a dangling modifier. The worst offender is a dangling modifier that modifies no subject, leaving the reader wondering who performed the action in the sentence.
Incorrect: To increase individual access to medical services, user experiential feedback should be fully considered.
Correct: To increase individual access to medical services, the program developers should fully consider user experiential feedback.
In the first sentence, it is not clear who should consider the user’s experiential feedback. This is because the word that is being modified is not actually included in the sentence. The second sentence correctly states the subject, making the sentence clear. Another example is as follows:
Incorrect: Requiring more data for the study, interviews were conducted with additional 20 experts.
Correct: Because we required more data for the study, we interviewed an additional 20 experts.
The beginning phrase in these sentences can be a subordinate clause, a dependent clause, a modifying phrase, a participial phrase, or a dangling participle, which follows a prepositional, past participle, present participle, or adverbial phrases. But in all cases, it modifies something in the sentence that is missing, leading to grammatical errors.
Identifying dangling modifiers in your academic writing
The following steps can help you easily recognize dangling modifiers
- Check each sentence individually: Look out for introductory phrases that come before the subject of the main clause.
- Find the noun or pronoun that the introductory phrase modifies: Identify the noun/pronoun in the sentence that the introductory phrase is supposed to modify.
- Verify that the modified noun/pronoun is correct. Check to see if the first noun phrase after the comma is the intended word/phrase that the introductory phrase is supposed to modify.
- Use of expletive it: Dangling modifiers are often followed by the expletive it. Expletives often make sentences wordy and vague.2
Incorrect: Even when the institution is confident in its teaching program, it's difficult for some students to follow that.
Correct: Even when the institution is confident in its teaching program, some students find it difficult to follow.
Rules to avoid dangling modifiers in your writing
You can follow the tips given below to remove dangling modifiers and make your writing clearer:
- Insert the correct subject in the sentence: The readers are often confused when the subject in a sentence is missing. The practical solution is to rephrase the sentence with the intended subject. You can choose a noun or phrase that answers the question of who:
Incorrect: Knowing little calculus, learning mechanics was difficult.
Correct: Knowing little calculus, I found it difficult to learn mechanics.
- Convert the modifier into a clause by incorporating the subject: In such a case, the opening no longer raises a question that needs an immediate answer:
Incorrect: To improve the results, the experiments were repeated 10 times.
Correct: He improved the results by repeating the experiment 10 times.
- Convert the sentence to active voice: Most often, dangling modifiers result from writing a sentence in the passive voice. Rewriting the sentence in the active voice can help you avoid dangling modifiers.
Incorrect: The sector was divided into three sections to test this hypothesis.
Correct: To test this hypothesis, we divided the sector into three sections.
- Insert the adjective or adverb close to the word it modifies: A sentence with a misplaced modifier is often misinterpreted by the reader. Sometimes a modifier, which can be a word, phrase, or clause, is placed far away from the word it intends to modify. In such a case, it might appear that the modifier is modifying something it does not intend to. This can result in an ambiguous sentence.
Incorrect: Gradually, the temperature of the hot oven was increased.
Correct: The temperature of the hot oven was increased gradually.
In this example, the adverb gradually modifies the verb “increased”. Gradually is separated from increased by the subject of the sentence, temperature of the hot oven.
We hope these grammar tips can help you correct dangling modifiers for more concise and easy-to-read writing.
- Lebovits, G. (2009). Writing Carefully, Misused Modifiers Must Be Avoided. New York Bar Journal, 81(1), 64.
- Modifiers: Misplaced, squinting and dangling. Retrieved from https://college.lclark.edu/live/files/10241-modifierspdf