Dangling Modifiers


DM: dangling modifiers (and other misrelated modifiers). 5. Dangling transitions.
1. Misplaced modifiers. 6. Dangling appositives.
2. Adverbs. 7. Squinting modifiers.
3. Misrelated participles. 8. SI: split infinitives.
4. Dangling modifiers.  

DM: dangling modifiers (and other misrelated modifiers). Modifying phrases must refer clearly to an appropriate word or phrase. If your teacher marks "DM" on your paper, identify which of the following errors you have made and correct it.

1. Misplaced modifiers. Place a modifier close to the word or phrase it should modify:

MISLEADING: The officer left to fight with his troops.

CLEAR: The officer left with his troops to fight.

At best, a misplaced modifier distracts your reader. At worst, it causes ambiguity or embarrassing blunders:

AMBIGUOUS: I waited for my parents to sit down to eat my breakfast.

AMBIGUOUS: Pat is in love with Kelly along with Jamie.

EMBARRASSING: I saw a shark snorkeling.

EMBARRASSING: She could not explain why she wanted to get married to her mother.

EMBARRASSING: After letting out a bang, I had to fix the ignition on my car.

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2. Adverbs. Place adverbs close to the verbs, adjectives or adverbs that they modify:

MISLEADING: He begged her not to speak sincerely.

CLEAR: He sincerely begged her not to speak.

Be especially careful with the words only and not:

MISLEADING: She only likes me. CLEAR: She likes only me.
MISLEADING: All of us are not honest. CLEAR: Not all of us are honest.

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3. Misrelated participles. Place participial phrases next to the phrases they modify. The error below could have been avoided by asking, "Who is dribbling?"

WRONG: He moves as quickly as a cheetah dribbling a basketball.

RIGHT: Dribbling a basketball, he moves as quickly as a cheetah.

The linking verb being is redundant as a participial modifier. People misuse being and being that to imply because:

WRONG: Being young, I could not understand my parents' worries.

WRONG: Being that I am young, I could not understand my parents' worries.

RIGHT: I was too young to understand my parents' worries.

Grammar Tip: A participle is a verb that acts as an adjective. Like an adjective, it modifies a noun, noun phrase or pronoun. Like a verb, it has a subject (namely, the word it modifies). It must be placed with care, for it will appear to modify the nearest noun or pronoun. Examples of participles:


PARTICIPIAL PHRASES: birds flying South for the winter, cookies dipped in milk

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4. Dangling modifiers. Some misplaced modifiers cannot be corrected by simple relocation. If the word which the phrase should modify does not appear in the sentence, the phrase ends up modifying either the wrong thing or nothing at all:

DANGLING: While taking a test, a fire alarm rang.

DANGLING: While taking a test, there was a fire alarm.

CLEAR: While we took a test, a fire alarm rang.

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5. Dangling transitions. Avoid vague transitional phrases that do not clearly modify something. In the following example, it is not clear what regards what:

DANGLING: Regarding work experience, I volunteered at a hospital last summer.

CLEAR: I gained first-hand experience last summer as a hospital volunteer.

Some introductory phrases are often dangled: arguably, in conclusion, personally, interestingly, more important (or more importantly), and the notorious hopefully. All these expressions are vague and trite. Either find better transitional phrases, or use the trite ones as grammatically as possible:

WRONG: In retrospect, it was a mistake.

RIGHT: In retrospect, I see it was a mistake.


WRONG: From what she said, she must be clever.

RIGHT: I can tell from what she said that she is clever.


WRONG: Hopefully, UCLA will accept me.

RIGHT: I hope UCLA will accept me. I wait hopefully for good news from UCLA.

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6. Dangling appositives. An appositive must have a clear noun phrase as an equivalent. In the sentence below, neither she nor the first set is the unforeseen setback:

WRONG: She lost the first set, an unforeseen setback that did not discourage her.

RIGHT (CLEAR EQUIVALENT): The first-set loss, an unforeseen setback, did not discourage her.

RIGHT (RESTRUCTURED): An unforeseen setback in the first set did not discourage her.

Grammar Tip: An appositive is a noun phrase equivalent to another noun phrase in the sentence. In "Bob, my postman, lives on my street," the appositive my postman is equivalent to the subject Bob.

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7. Squinting modifiers. A squinting modifier is located between two phrases, to either of which it can refer. Relocate the modifier. The following sentence can mean two things:

AMBIGUOUS: I drink skim milk only because I am on a diet.

CLEAR: Because I am on a diet, I drink skim milk only.

CLEAR: Only because I am on a diet do I drink skim milk.

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8. SI: split infinitives. Relocate words that come between to and the infinitive form of a verb. A split infinitive is a minor fault. However, to ears accustomed to English, it may ring a sour note; Shakespeare did not write "To be or to not be." Usually it is easy to relocate the modifier:

WRONG: I tried to quietly exit. RIGHT: I tried to exit quietly.
WRONG: He vowed to never leave her. RIGHT: He vowed never to leave her.

If there is no perfect location for the modifying phrase, do not eliminate it; rephrase the sentence.

WRONG: Mom once told me to always leave a room as neat as it was when I entered.

RIGHT: Mom once told me I should always leave a room as neat as it was when I entered.

Grammar Tip: The unconjugated form of a verb, accompanied by the preposition to, is the infinitive. Infinitives or infinitive phrases can serve as modifiers or noun phrases:

ADVERB PHRASE: She plays to win. (modifying the verb plays).

ADJECTIVE PHRASE: They are the team to beat. (modifying the noun team).

NOUN PHRASE: To know my pit bull is to love him. (subject and complement of is)

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