What are Dangling Modifiers?
A modifier is any word or group of words that describes or qualifies the meaning of other parts of a sentence. When used accurately, a modifier can inform and clarify. When used out of place, these modifiers are called misplaced or dangling, and can often create confusion and unexpected amusement. For instance,
After declining for numerous quarters, Brian tried a new tactic to increase sales.
Evidently, this sentence intended to depict sales as declining, not Brian.
Witnesses reported seeing a girl driving the getaway car with flowing blonde hair.
Likewise, the flowing blonde hair belonged to the girl, not the vehicle. Misplaced modifiers can be fixed by placing the modifier next to the entity it is describing.
Brian tried a new tactic to increase sales after they had been declining for several quarters.
Witnesses reported that a girl with flowing blonde hair was seen driving the getaway car.
Words intended to limit the sentence—only, almost, even, hardly, nearly—can frequently cause serious misplacement issues resulting in awkward logic.
Shane has nearly wrecked every computer he has ever owned.
Based on this sentence structure, Shane should be grateful that he has never actually wrecked any computer, only nearly wrecked them. The intended limit here was nearly every computer. To avoid such errors, ensure that the limiting modifier is positioned in front of the word (or words) being modified.
As the term suggests, the most glaring errors happen when the modifier is located so far away from the noun that it seems to be left hanging in mid-air, or the descriptor is left with no noun to explain at all.
With long ears dragging on the floor, Claire wondered how the dog could walk without tripping over.
The modifier long ears is placed too far away in the sentence to be plausible. Again, placing the modifier next to the noun it is describing fixes the problem. A little rephrasing may be needed for the modifier to fit the grammatical structure of the sentence.
Claire wondered how the dog could walk without tripping over its long ears dragging on the floor.
Read What You Write
Modifier mistakes typically happen because of writing hurriedly and not checking your work with a fresh outlook. Though your work may make perfect sense to you, it might end up looking totally incoherent to the reader because they are reading the words for the first time. Reading the sentence out aloud and paying attention to its meaning, independent of context, will help in recognizing these misplaced or dangling modifiers.
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