legs dangling off a wall

How to Get out of a Tangle When Your Modifiers Dangle

By Jennifer Rappaport

When a modifier modifies the wrong word or has nothing to modify at all, writing experts say that the modifier dangles. Here are some examples of dangling modifiers—and some ways to fix them.

Verb Forms

Verbs Ending in -ing or -ed

At the beginning of a sentence, phrases that start with a verb ending in -ing or -ed are often guilty of dangling:

Topped with pepperoni and covered with extra cheese, the children devoured the pizza.

Since the modifier, topped with pepperoni and covered with extra cheese, describes the pizza and not the children, unless the children are extremely messy eaters, the writer might revise as follows:

Topped with pepperoni and covered with extra cheese, the pizza was devoured by the children.

In the next example, turning the corner has nothing to modify:

Turning the corner, a house came into view.

The writer might rewrite the sentence to specify who or what was doing the turning:

As we turned the corner, a house came into view.

A dangling modifier can also occur elsewhere in a sentence:

Class participation should be considered when giving final grades in the course.

When giving final grades lacks a subject, so the writer might rewrite to supply one:

Instructors should consider class participation when giving final grades in the course.

Verbs Used as Nouns

When the -ing form of a verb is used as a noun, a dangler can result. In the example below, instead of cutting out carbohydrates lacks an agent to modify: 

She decided that, instead of cutting out carbohydrates, a paleo diet would be better for weight loss.

The writer might revise as follows:

She decided that, instead of cutting out carbohydrates, she would follow a paleo diet for weight loss.

The “to” Form of the Verb

Claire Cook notes that dangling often occurs with the “to” form of  a verb, “one in which the to has the sense of in order to” (32).

The employees were promoted by the company to reward them for their hard work.

In the example above, to reward lacks a subject since the employees are not doing the rewarding. The dangler may be more apparent when the sentence is rearranged: In order to reward them for their hard work, the employees were promoted by the company. To fix the problem, you could supply a subject for to reward or rewrite the sentence so that a subject is unnecessary:

The company promoted its employees to reward them for their hard work.

 The employees were promoted in reward for their hard work.

Adjectives

An adjective can also dangle. In the following example, the adjectives dangle:

Tired and cranky, Jack’s morning cup of coffee got him through the day.

Since tired and cranky are meant to modify Jack, not his cup of coffee, the writer might revise as follows:

Tired and cranky, Jack needed his morning cup of coffee to get him through the day.

As, Like, Unlike

Wilson Follett observes that like, unlike, and as can also dangle (95):

Like most office workers these days, our in-boxes are filled with e-mail.

 Unlike most office workers these days, our in-boxes do not fill up with much e-mail.

 In both cases, in-boxes is incorrectly equated with office workers, so the writer might rewrite this way:

Like most office workers these days, we find that our in-boxes are filled with e-mail.

 Unlike most office workers these days, we find that our in-boxes do not fill up with much e-mail.

And here’s an example of a problematic as:

As a dancer, your feet need proper care.

 Instead, the writer could write:

As a dancer, you need to take proper care of your feet.

In all the faulty examples above, sharp readers may understand your intended meaning, but sharp writers will fix the danglers to make their prose clearer and easier to read.

Works Cited

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Revised by Erik Wensberg, Hill and Wang, 1998.

Think you understand danglers now? Test your knowledge with our quiz.

Published 4 September 2018

2 comments on “How to Get out of a Tangle When Your Modifiers Dangle”

  1. Great attention is a must for a writer to avoid the sneaking errors of dangling modifiers. Good examples.

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