A dangling modifier (sometimes called a “hanging participle”) is a phrase that’s not properly attached to the rest of the sentence. In other words, it dangles.
Let’s find out how we can avoid this problem.
Hanging by a Thread
As you can see from the following example, it’s usually the opening phrase that causes the problem:
Distracted by a text message, the accident propelled John out of his seat and left him dangling from a tree.
When we read an opening phrase, we tend to assume that it tells us something about the first noun in the clause that follows. (If that’s not how you read then it’s time to start.) As a result, the example implies that the accident was distracted by a text message—which of course makes no sense.
Let’s take a look at a few more examples to get the hang of things:
1. Blushing furiously, the matchmaker told us we were perfect for each other.
(The implication is that the matchmaker is blushing furiously.)
2. Filled with manure and rotten eggs, Tracy rolled the wheelbarrow to the dung heap.
(The implication is that Tracy is filled with manure and rotten eggs.)
3. To win, the rules will have to be bent a little.
(It sounds like the rules are trying to win.)
4. Swimming in the aquarium, we saw the fish eye us with curiosity.
(The sentence suggests that we are swimming in the aquarium.)
5. Inside the space station, planet earth was illuminated by the sun.
(Surely planet earth is not inside the space station.)
6. Being a little tipsy, the piano wouldn’t stay in one place.
(Only in a Tom Waits song does the piano get tipsy.)
7. Still wearing her lingerie, the lion gobbled up Mrs. Jeffrey.
(Lions don’t usually wear their victims’ lingerie.)
8. The man of the age, everyone wanted to meet Mr. Merdle.
(Not everyone can be the man of the age.)
As you can see from the examples, most often the culprit is a participial phrase (1, 2, 4, 6, 7), though you will also find dangling infinitive phrases (3), appositives (8), and prepositional phrases (5).
The Possessive Case
Before we take a look at how to fix a dangling modifier, there is one last thing to watch out for. Occasionally it looks like the opening phrase is properly attached to the first noun in the main clause, as in this example:
After writing The Tempest, Shakespeare’s retirement from playwriting came quickly.
This sounds right because it was Shakespeare who wrote The Tempest. But here’s the catch: Shakespeare’s name is in the possessive case (the ’s is the clue), which means that grammatically Shakespeare’s is acting like an adjective. The real noun is retirement, and Shakespeare’s is just telling you a bit more about whose retirement this is. That’s why the sentence is actually saying that the retirement wrote The Tempest.
The rule to remember, then, is that the opening phrase must be attached to the first noun of the main clause, which cannot be in the possessive case.
Fixing dangling modifiers
A dangling modifier can be fixed in a number of ways.
1. The best solution is to make sure that the right subject starts the main clause:
Dangling Modifier: Disgusted by greasy cafeteria food, my lunch consisted of a salad and an apple.
Correct: Disgusted by greasy cafeteria food, I brought a salad and an apple for lunch.
2. Another solution—often a clunky one—is to add some clarification to the opening phrase:
Since I was disgusted by greasy cafeteria food, my lunch consisted of a salad and an apple.
This option is less than ideal and can turn the opening phrase into an unwieldy dependent clause.
3. The third option is one that students often turn to, but it’s the one with the lowest odds of success. Sometimes it works to flip the sentence around, though even then you may have to add some words:
My lunch consisted of a salad and an apple, as I was disgusted by greasy cafeteria food.
This last solution works better when the opening phrase modifies the last noun of the sentence:
Dangling modifier: Displaying its feathers, we all took pictures of the Indian peacock.
Correct: We all took pictures of the Indian peacock displaying its feathers.
The key, then, is not to settle on one solution but to assess which one fits the context. If, in the end, you struggle to find an easy fix, your best bet might be rewrite the entire sentence. There may just be a much better way to word things.