How to Identify and Fix Dangling Modifiers
What is a dangling modifier?
Dangling modifiers are often realized as sentence-beginning adjuncts which do not refer to the correct phrase from the rest of the sentence.
An example of a dangling modifier is the underlined string of words in the following sentence:
“After returning from vacation, a large stack of paperwork awaited John.”
Many readers, even some native English speakers, do not spot the error in this sentence. This is because the reader assumes that the underlined phrase refers to John, as it makes no sense for it to refer to anything else in the sentence.
However, the sentence has been written so that it is the stack of paperwork — and not John — that has returned from vacation.
Why is this the case? Imagine that, instead of a stack of paperwork awaiting John when he returns from vacation, it is another person. The sentence would read:
“Upon returning from vacation, James awaited John.”
In this sentence, James is a sensible noun for the adjunct to refer to, and so the reader will take this sentence to mean that James has returned from vacation and is now awaiting John. This sentence is grammatical, but because John is the one who has been on vacation, it has been written incorrectly.
As the previous example shows, it is the phrase immediately following the modifier to which the modifier is applied. When the phrase immediately following the modifier does not make sense (as is the case in the first example in which a large stack of paperwork follows the modifier), the modifier is a dangling modifier.
How to fix a dangling modifier
There are two ways you can fix a dangling modifier.
1) Reword the information given after the modifier so that the phrase to which the modifier is meant to be applied immediately follows the modifier.
We can reword the incorrect “After returning from vacation, a large stack of paperwork awaited John,” as “After returning from vacation, John had a large stack of paperwork awaiting him.”
2) Insert the phrase to which the modifier is meant to apply into the modifier itself.
Another option for fixing the sentence, “After returning from vacation, a large stack of paperwork awaited John,” is to put John into the modifier. We could write, “After John returned from vacation, a large stack of paperwork awaited him.”
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Tips blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.