“Dropping through the letterbox with a dull thud I picked up the morning post. Sighing deeply the bills dropped into the bin as usual. Having been burnt to a crisp I threw the toast in on top of them.”
As a gentleman I was always taught to avoid encounters which could result in a case of synathroesmus, never to get my genitives mixed up, and absolutely not to dangle my modifiers in public. Sadly, I see too many examples of modifiers being dangled willy-nilly, pardon the expression, and frankly it ought to stop.
Unfortunately not only are dangling modifiers worryingly common, but very often when people endeavour to find out just what the heck a modifier looks like when it is dangling, and why it might cause anything from wry amusement to outright consternation, it’s easy to be confused.
Grammar advisory sites can sometimes seem to derive great glee from demonstrating intensely complex and utterly verbose definitions which require every fourth sub-clause to be looked up in another grammar dictionary.
So I thought it might be helpful to provide a quick and easy to understand guide to what a modifier is, why it is wrong to dangle it, the ways in which a modifier is likely to be dangled, and how to put it away properly when preparing to present your writing to an audience.
What Is A Modifier?
Very simply a modifier is either a word or phrase which describes another word, object or idea in a sentence.
So, in the phrase, “the sun was shining brightly,” the words ‘shining brightly’ describe, or ‘modify’ the word ‘sun’.
Here’s another example: “I was walking down the street looking at the golden colours of the trees.” In this case the words ‘was walking’ modify the word ‘I’, and the words ‘golden colours’ modify (describe) the trees.
A modifier is often an adjective, or adjectival phrase, and describes either the physical appearance of an object, its action or other attribute.
How Can A Modifier Dangle?
The most usual way in which a modifying word or phrase can be said to dangle is by separating it from the word or thing it is supposed to be describing.
So, rather than saying ‘as I walked down the street I saw the leaves on the trees were a beautiful golden brown’ I might be tempted to grab the descriptive phrase and use it to open the sentence.
This might well seem a more poetic or engaging way of writing, but the risk is that we end up with something like ‘a beautiful golden brown, I walked down the street looking at the trees.’ Sadly as I live in the UK I see very little sunshine, and so a beautiful golden brown I am most decidedly not.
The Most Common Way In Which Modifiers Are Left Dangling
This is actually the most common way in which writers cause their modifier to dangle – sticking the descriptive phrase at one end of the sentence. Since a sentence usually includes a subject and an object, your modifying word or phrase will relate to either the subject or the object.
It is important therefore to make sure that if your modifier relates to the subject, the object doesn’t come between them. Similarly, if your modifying word or phrase relates to the object, make sure that your subject doesn’t end up as the unwitting filling in the sandwich.
You can see in the three examples I included at the beginning of this article I have separated the modifier and whatever it is modifying by the other subject/object of the sentence. Let’s look at one of those examples more closely: “Dropping through the letterbox with a dull thud I picked up the morning post.”
We can safely assume that one of my morning rituals is not to squeeze myself through my letterbox and land heavily on the doormat before examining my post, yet this is precisely the visual image given by this sentence. Unfortunately it can be this unexpected and bizarre image which can destroy the atmosphere, pace, tension or excitement within a story.
The modifying phrase in this example is the ‘dropping through the letterbox with a dull thud’ – this obviously refers to the ‘morning post’. But in this sentence the descriptive phrase, or modifier, appears at the beginning of the sentence, and the object to which it refers, the morning post, appears at the end of the sentence. Sandwiched in between is my good self, which means that to the reader the descriptive phrase appears to relate to me, rather than my post.
To avoid this type of mistake we can simply re-write the sentence making sure that our description connects directly with whatever it is describing without being separated by another subject or object. So we could instead say “As the morning post dropped through the letterbox with a dull thud I bent down to pick it up.” In this case the modifying phrase and ‘morning post’ appear together, and so it makes much more sense.
How Can You Check Your Own Writing For Dangling Modifiers?
The most likely examples of dangling modifiers will be when the descriptive phrase occurs at the beginning of the sentence, so check for these. Read through your writing and spot any sentences which start with a description of how something looks, feels, smells, or what it is doing.
Then read on and underline the very next noun. If the noun is not the intended target of the description then the chances are your modifier is dangling, so rewrite the sentence quickly before anybody notices.
Let’s See This In Practice:
“Ringing loudly and incessantly the doorbell demanded my attention. Running frantically in response, the hall rug slipped, and I flew headfirst into the front door. Sobbing with pain the lump on my head began to grow to an alarming size. Feeling thoroughly fed up I flung open the door to see who it was.”
Okay, so this little snippet of literature isn’t going to win any grand prizes, but it does help us to examine just how to identify possible dangling modifiers.
The descriptive phrase or modifier at the start of this sentence is ‘ringing loudly and incessantly’, so let’s keep reading until we come to the very next noun. In this case the next noun is ‘doorbell’. Is this the thing which was ringing loudly and incessantly? Yes it was, so this sentence is fine.
The descriptive phrase or modifier at the start of this sentence is ‘running frantically in response’, so let’s keep reading until we come to the very next noun. In this case the next noun is ‘hall rug’. Is this the thing which is running frantically? No it isn’t, so this sentence contains a dangling modifier, and the reader may think that the hall rug was running to the front door – a fairly ludicrous image! We could re-write this sentence as ‘running frantically in response I slipped on the hall rug and flew headfirst into the door.’
The descriptive phrase or modifier at the start of this sentence is ‘sobbing with pain’ so let’s keep reading until we come to the very next noun. In this case the next noun is ‘lump’. Is this the thing which was sobbing loudly? No it isn’t, so this sentence also contains a dangling modifier. We should re-write this sentence as ‘sobbing with pain I felt the lump on my head begin to grow to an alarming size.’
The descriptive phrase or modifier at the start of this sentence is ‘feeling thoroughly fed up’, so let’s keep reading until we come to the very next noun. In this case the next noun is ‘I’. Is this the thing that was feeling thoroughly fed up? Yes it is, so this sentence is fine.
I hope that helps to demonstrate the most common way in which a dangling modifier can occur, how to spot them, and how to correct them. But if you have any further questions or points to make do please leave a comment below and I will reply.