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Dangling Modifiers

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Fri Dec 31, 2010 12:05 am
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RachaelElg says...



1) The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, reflecting the blue sky.

2) The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, growing in ever-bigger circles.

3) The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, plunging in deep.


Observe the three sentences* above for a moment. Prescriptively speaking, one of them is grammatically correct. Two of them are not. Any guesses as to which—or why?

I’ll kill the suspense now and tell you that 3, believe it or not, is grammatically correct. 1 and 2 both have a case of a dangled modifier, an error that is quite common, usually harmless, but also hilarious. Sometimes even fatal.

By being aware of dangled modifiers, you can be one step closer to grammatically immaculate writing. (Split infinitives are not grammatical errors, by the way.)

But what is a dangled modifier, exactly? And how do you go about recognizing them?

Glad you asked.

Short Explanation

A dangled modifier is a modifier that’s not actually modifying what it was intended to modify. In other words, the subject of the main clause and the underlying subject of the modifying clause/phrase don’t match. If you want to make sure the reader’s reading you loud and clear, the subjects need to match.**

Longer Explanation

Let’s break apart the example sentences for a moment and see what we’re dealing with.

1) The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, reflecting the blue sky.

This sentence is made up of two sentences:
--The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake.
--The [clear water of the] lake reflected the blue sky.

Because saying those two sentences back-to-back would typically be boring, wordy, redundant, etc, the author of that sentence chose to combine them. And the author combined them by turning the second into what’s called a participle phrase, the most commonly dangled modifier.

Here’s the participle phrase:

--reflecting the blue sky.

It was formed by making

--The lake reflected the blue sky

into

--The lake was reflecting the blue sky

and then dropping ‘the lake’ and the auxiliary verb (was)

To combine the two sentences, the author stuck this new participle phrase at the end of the sentence. Unfortunately for the author, what he or she’s trying to say isn’t actually being said, if you follow the grammar of

--The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, reflecting the blue of the sky.

What’s actually being said is either

a) The stone was reflecting the blue of the sky and it made ripples in the lake.

or

b) The stone’s making of ripples was reflecting the blue of the sky.

Neither of which are the author’s intended meaning of:

--The stone made ripples in the lake. The lake was reflecting the blue of the sky.

Something similar goes for the second sentence:

2) The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, growing in ever-bigger circles.

Here, the underlying sentences are:
--The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake.
--The ripples grew in ever-bigger circles.

But 2 doesn’t say that. Instead, 2 there says:

a) The stone was growing in every larger circles (?) and made ripples in the lake

See what I mean about mistakes being potentially hilarious?

Sentence 3, meanwhile, while somewhat weird in other considerations, is perfectly dandy:

3) The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, plunging in deep.

Underlying sentences:
--The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake
--The stone plunged in deep.

Stone = stone.

All this dangled modifier business is happening because the modifier (the participle phrase) isn’t actually modifying what the author wanted it to modify (the lake in 1, the ripples in 2). And it isn’t modifying what the author wanted it to modify because the subjects don’t line up. Neither the lake nor the ripples = the stone.


I hope by now that the problems dangled modifiers cause are clear. But if you still aren’t quite clear on what they are, how to find them, or how to fix them, here are some tests on making sure your main clauses + modifying clauses are doing what you want them to do!

Tests

1) Split the sentences into two as we did in the examples above. See if what’s actually being said matches up with what you were trying to say. If not, do some rearranging.

2) Move the modifier around. (The modifier will be the one that can’t stand on its lonesome.)

For instance, in 1), it becomes clear that something’s off when you phrase it:

-- The stone, reflecting the blue sky, made ripples in the clear water of the lake.

or

--Reflecting the blue sky, the stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake.


As for tips on how to fix them:

1) Get the subjects to line up if you can. If you can’t, two words:

2) Relative clauses.

The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake that was reflecting the blue of the sky.

The stone made ripples in the clear water of the lake, which was reflecting the blue of the sky.

Alternatively:

3) Separate sentences. Can’t go wrong there.

Note: more ways exist to fix a dangled modifier than I listed above. Those are just a few.

Another note: more than just participle phrases get dangled by unsuspecting writers. If it’s a modifier, it can probably get dangled somehow, given how English likes to behave. Participle phrases just tend to be the most common, and are also the easiest to explain.

Further Reading and Information

Anyone’s free to contact me with grammar questions at any time. If I don’t know the answer, I have textbooks that will. But in case you merely want to read up on this issue some more yourself, Wikipedia has a decent article on it. (Wikipedia actually has many good grammar-related articles.)

I hope this helped someone out!

Rach

*Examples developed with the wonderful help of the wonderful Azila
**You could probably write a dissertation on this topic, so, why yes, I have oversimplified in many regards. I doubt, after all, that you want to read a dissertation-length post on dangled modifiers. I frankly don’t want to write one.
If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.
—James Thurber




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Mon Jan 17, 2011 10:12 am
clairecoxon96 says...



Thank you for this information.
I'm new to YWS and am reading through everything and trying to understand it. This took some time to understand but it soon fell into place.
It will become second nature and my writing will improve heaps.
Thank you, Claire




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Fri Dec 02, 2011 2:17 pm
ArahAkachi1 says...



Thank you for the information on dangling modifiers Rachael. I've never had a dangling modifier error that I've known about, but I will keep an eye on it. Thank you for the explanation and the tips on how I can fix it. Merci (Thank you)
~Arah~
Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And then the next thing you'll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you'll be in as much trouble as I am!




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Mon Feb 06, 2012 8:58 am
Lavvie says...



Stone = stone.


I love the hilarity of dangling modifiers sometimes.

This was an awesome article, Rach, too. I learned some more, which was great :)




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Sun Mar 18, 2012 12:24 pm
AlfredSymon says...



I've always had problems with dangling participles, they're arguably common in my writings. At least this article can help a bit :)
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Thu Apr 26, 2012 3:29 am
zohali93 says...



Wow that was great! :D I had no idea that Dangling modifiers existed.
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Thu Apr 26, 2012 11:06 am
Twit says...



Wow. I'd never knew of modifiers before, much less that they could dangle. Very interesting and helpful article, Rachael!
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