Shifts in Perspective

Introduction

A shift in perspective occurs when your use of verbs and pronouns is inconsistent. There are five different shifts to watch out for (three for verbs, two for pronouns).

Pronoun Shifts

Before we look at the two types of pronoun shifts, we need to review a few facts about pronouns.

Pronouns are either singular or plural in number. In addition, pronouns are either first, second, or third person.

An easy way to remember the difference is to say, “I will be the first person to tell you (the second person) that she is the third person.” In other words, the first person is the speaker, the second person is spoken to, and the third person is spoken about.

To make this a bit more visual, here’s a chart of the most common personal pronouns:

Singular Plural
1st person: I we
2nd person: you you
3rd person: he/she/it/one they

If you want some more review, check out our lessons on pronouns.

Shifts in Person

Here’s an example of a shift in person:

Dear fellow graduates, now that we have crossed the stage, you have a bright future ahead of you.

First person pronoun: we

Second person pronoun: you

Presumably this should all be in the first person. However, it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes a shift in perspective makes sense:

Dear fellow graduates, now that we have crossed the stage, you have a bright future ahead of you. I, on the other hand, have student loans.

Sometimes the speaker actually does have a different point of view.

Shifts in number

Shifts in number are more common, especially in student essays.

Here’s a shift from one (singular) to their (plural):

One should not let their friends pressure them into smoking.

Correct: Kids should not let their friends pressure them into smoking.

Notice that it’s often easiest to shift the whole sentence into the plural. Otherwise you would have to make multiple changes.

Watch out also for groups or organizations that consist of many members but are grammatically singular:

Even though the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has less and less control over its members, rumours circulate that they will try to ramp up the production of oil.

Correct: Even though the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has less and less control over its members, rumours circulate that it will try to ramp up the production of oil.

It’s easy to shift from it to they when dealing with a collective entity.

Verb Shifts

Tense

Avoid awkward shifts in tense. The following sentence, for instance, suddenly jumps from the past to the present tense:

After Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598, the heir to the throne was too young to govern, and the resulting power vacuum leads to the Battle of Sekigahara, in 1600.

By the way, there is no universal consensus on what tense to use in talking about literary texts and other written documents. For instance, historians tend to treat texts and their contents as part of the past, whereas English teachers see the text as timeless, or as immediately present to the reader.

Compare, for instance, the following two sentences:

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V tells his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt that “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”

According to Shakespeare, Henry V told his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt that “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”

Whereas the first sentence describes only the action in the play, the second sentence is much more concerned with historical fact, and so the past tense makes more sense.

Yet there is some leeway here, so be careful when you’re relating literary texts to their historical context, especially when different disciplines have varying conventions.

Mood

A verb comes in one of the following moods:

1. Indicative: a simple statement or question.

We are having a party. (statement)

Do you like our party? (question)

2. Imperative: a command to do something.

Come to our party!

3. Subjunctive: a conditional statement.

Had you been less busy, you could have come to our party. (statement contrary to fact)

I might come to your party if you invite me. (hypothetical statement)

I wish you were here. (a wish)

We hope that you come to our party (a suggestion)

He insisted that she come to the party (a demand)

Clearly, the subjunctive mood is the trickiest one.

Now, experience will tell you that sentences often shift from one mood to another. The key is to avoid unnecessary shifts, as in the following examples.

1. A shift from the subjunctive to the indicative:

I would write a letter to my Minister of Parliament if the cost of ink was not so horrendously expensive.

Correct: I would write a letter to my Minister of Parliament if the cost of ink were not so horrendously expensive.

2. A shift from the imperative to the subjunctive.

Come see our performance of H.M.S. Pinafore, and you should bring your boyfriend too!

Correct: Come see our performance of H.M.S. Pinafore, and bring your boyfriend too!

Voice

Verbs are either in the active voice or in the passive voice. In the active voice the subject of the sentence is doing the action, whereas in the passive voice the action is happening to the subject.

Here’s a sentence with a verb in the active voice:

Kayla read thirteen books on her holiday.

Subject: Kayla.

Active voice: read.

And here’s the passive version:

Thirteen books were read by Kayla.

Subject: Thirteen books.

Passive voice: is sponsored.

It’s useful to remember that the passive voice often leads to a by construction (by Kayla) that tells you who or what is actually performing the action of the verb. Once you find the implied subject, it’s relatively easy to make the sentence active.

If you want to be more direct and concise, try use the active voice. Either way, try to avoid awkward shifts such as the following:

Andrew won the golf tournament. In the process, a new course record was set.

In this example, the second sentence unnecessarily shifts to the passive voice.

And that’s it for shifts of perspective.

Subject Verb Agreement

Introduction

The subject and the main verb work as a team. That’s why they have to match in person and number.

Take the following sentence:

Bob drives a truck.

Bob is a third person singular noun, and so the verb (drives) is singular. This harmony between subject and verb is called agreement.

Mistakes often occur when the verb doesn’t come right after the subject:

Incorrect: Each of the soldiers in captain Corcoran’s company were awarded the purple cross.

In this case the verb should be was awarded, as each is singular. There are plenty of other tricky cases, and we’ll review them one by one.

The Rules

And

Whenever you connect two nouns with and, you end up with a plural subject. In such cases the verb should be plural too:

Sonja and Jason were overjoyed that their names are anagrams of each other.

According to Nietzsche, socialism and Christianity have a lot in common.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. Sometimes a compound subject refers to a single thing, in which case it takes a singular verb:

The conductor and harpsichordist was Ton Koopman.

My muse and inspiration is, as always, my dear wife Catherine.

As you can see, in each case the subject actually refers to just one person.

Tip: Watch out for phrases such as along with and as well as. These prepositional phrases are not part of the subject and do not function like and to form a compound subject.

Here’s an example:

Sarah, along with the rest of her siblings, has the measles.

Or and Nor

You can also use or and nor to connect the parts of the subject.

When you use one of these conjunctions as part of your subject, the verb should agree in number with the closest noun in the subject:

In Mongolia, an Ovoo or Obo is a sacred stone cairn.

Neither William nor his teammates were able to explain why the coach’s tires were slashed.

A cookie or some crackers are great. Thank you!

Neither Larry nor Lucifer is a good name for your son.

The examples also show that if the subject contains both singular and plural nouns it usually sounds most natural to place the plural noun last, closest to the verb. Compare the following sentences:

Neither the principal nor the teachers are going to the conference on bullying.

Neither the teachers nor the principal is going to the conference on bullying.

The first option is preferred.

The same principle applies if the nouns in the subject change not in number but in person. In the following example, the subject consists of a third person noun (Amelia) and a first person pronoun (I):

Neither Amelia nor I am happy about the divorce.

While this is grammatically correct, it sounds terribly awkward, so you may want to rephrase anyway.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns refer to a single group that contains multiple people or objects. For example, a crowd is singular even though it contains numerous people.

Collective nouns normally take a singular verb:

The board of appeal has made its decision.

The class was dismissed.

Very rarely a collective noun can take a plural verb:

The jury are going home to their families.

In such cases we’re talking about the individual members of the group.

More Tricky Nouns

In addition to collective nouns, there are some other nouns that also take unusual forms.

1. First of all, nouns like scissors, pants, or glasses are plural, even though they refer to just one thing:

My glasses are missing.

However, if you use the word pair with them then you’ll need a singular verb:

A pair of binoculars was found in the washroom.

2. Watch out as well for nouns that end in s, but are actually singular. Here are some common categories and examples:

illnesses: measles, diabetes

subjects: linguistics, economics, classics, physics

games: billiards, darts

other: politics, species, news

These nouns generally take a singular verb:

Billiards was never included in the Olympics.

Your next news is at seven.

3. A few of these nouns (e.g., news) also belong to yet another tricky group: uncountable nouns. Even though they refer to a quantity of something, we cannot divide them into their component parts. Here are some examples of uncountable nouns:

Milk
Luggage
Music
Money
Water

Such nouns also take a singular verb:

The water tastes funny.

Our elevator music consists of the soundtrack to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4. Finally, a few nouns borrowed from Latin and Greek that end in a are considered plural:

Criteria
Phenomena
Strata

Don’t assume, though, that a final a means the word is plural. An amoeba, for instance, is a single cell. In addition, words like media and data can be singular or plural, depending on the context.

Reversed Order

Sometimes the verb comes before the subject. However, the same rules for agreement still apply:

In that dilapidated house lives a dissipated poet. (a poet lives)

Watch out especially for expletives (phrases like there is, there are, and it is). Here the real subject comes after the verb:

There are three deer grazing in the backyard. (subject: three deer)

There is a small chance that it might rain. (subject: a small chance)

It is time to curb spending. (subject: time)

Be careful, though, when the verb is followed by two singular nouns that together form the subject:

There is a Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon at the door.

In such cases the verb is usually singular. On the other hand, if you reverse the sentence (which may sound more natural), then the verb becomes plural:

A Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon are at the door.

Indefinite Pronouns

Often the subject will include an indefinite pronoun. The tricky thing is that a few indefinite pronouns can be singular or plural:

all
any
more
most
none
some
such

When checking for agreement, watch out especially for the indefinite pronouns in the last column. The following examples show how these pronouns can be singular or plural:

All of the money is spent. (money is singular)

All of the shows are sold out. (shows is plural)

Some of the money is already allocated. (some refers to a single amount of money)

Some of our members object (members is plural)

In these cases, context is everything.

The trickiest indefinite pronoun, though, is none. Literally it means not one, and so should be singular, yet we often use it to mean not any, in which case it would be plural. That’s why both of the following sentences are correct.

None of the sheep in the pasture has been sheared yet. (meaning not one)

None of the sheep in the pasture have been sheared yet. (meaning not any)

Number

When we use the word number in the subject, it’s the article (a or the) that determines whether the subject is singular or plural:

A number of doves were acting hawkish. (plural)

The number of Sumatran rhinos is dwindling rapidly. (singular)

In these examples, a number means some or quite a few, whereas the number refers to a single amount.

The same rule applies to words such as minority and majority.

Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns who, which, and that allow you to relate extra information.

They typically refer back to a previous noun phrase (the antecedent) and are followed by a verb:

My new tutor is Jenny’s father, who speaks fluent Italian.

In this case who refers back to father (singular), and so the verb speaks is also singular.

Watch out especially for phrases that start with one of. In such cases the verb can be singular or plural, depending on what it refers back to:

I learned how to dress one of those mannequins that are on display in the store window.

I learned how to use chopsticks from one of my friends who is Taiwanese.

In other words, it’s up to you to figure out what the real antecedent is.

Linking Verbs

When you use a linking verb, make sure it agrees with the preceding subject, and not with the subject complement:

My art project is a sculpture and a painting of my boyfriend.

On a side note, you can often replace linking verbs with more specific verbs. In this case you might pick consists of.

Titles

If you mention a title or draw attention to a particular word then you should make the verb singular:

The Grapes of Wrath is rather depressing.

I think that Dances with Wolves presents a romanticized view of native Americans.

The word ultracrepidarians refers to people who offer their opinion on matters they know little about.

Even though the title or word contains a plural noun, the verb remains singular.

Pronoun Reference

Introduction

Pronouns require a clear antecedent. The antecedent is the noun (or pronoun) that the pronoun replaces. Most of the time the antecedent comes before the pronoun.

Here’s a sentence where the antecedent is not entirely clear:

The Hoffman kids have a hamster and a sugar glider, but they are always grumpy.

How do you know what they refers back to? Is it the kids or the pets? There is no easy way to tell.

Common problems

The following are the most common mistakes involving pronoun reference.

1. The pronoun refers to the wrong antecedent:

Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized it into a state called plasma.

Correct: Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized these gases into a state called plasma.

Correct: Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized them into a state called plasma.

2. The pronoun has no antecedent:

We studied the old English poem Beowulf, who killed a monster named Grendel.

In this sentence the pronoun who should refer back to the character Beowulf, but he is not mentioned (only the title is).

Be aware too that the antecedent should not be in the possessive case.

Incorrect: In Shakespeare’s sonnets, he often analyzes the effects of time.

Correct: In his sonnets, Shakespeare often analyzes the effects of time.

This is a frequent error in student writing.

3. The pronoun can refer to multiple antecedents:

Karla told Esther that she needed to declutter her house.

Correct: Talking to Esther, Karla said that she needed to declutter her house.

Such a problem is not always easy to fix without rewriting the sentence. Whatever you do, avoid clarifying the antecedent in brackets:

Incorrect: Karla told Esther that she (Karla) needed to declutter her house.

With any of these problems, try find a natural solution. You can add an antecedent, pick the correct pronoun, replace the pronoun with a noun, or rewrite the sentence.

Tips

To prevent problems, try follow these suggestions:

1. Watch out for too much distance between the pronoun and the antecedent.

2. Remember that a reader’s natural tendency is to assume that the antecedent is the last noun mentioned.

Hard cases

Collective nouns

A collective noun is a single group of multiple things or people:

Here are some examples of collective nouns:

Jury
People
Team
Herd
Army
Committee

Collective nouns take a singular pronoun if the emphasis is on the group as a single unit:

The army has sent out its recruiters.

A plural pronoun is appropriate if the focus is on the members of the group. This is especially the case where the members are doing different things:

The Liberal caucus were split over the issues facing them.

If this sounds awkward (it does to us!), then add a plural noun:

The members of the Liberal caucus were split over the issues facing them.

Indefinite pronouns

A lot of pronoun reference problems are caused by indefinite pronouns. As the chart shows, it can be tricky to remember which ones are singular and which ones plural:

Singular Plural Singular or Plural
another both all
anything few any
each many more
much others most
neither several none
someone some
such

Here are some examples of correct pronoun reference using indefinite pronouns (neithereach, and some):

Neither student had seen her grades.

Each of the cars had its tires slashed.

Some of the test subjects reported that their marriages had improved.

These days, many of us use the singular indefinite pronouns as if they are plural (example: everyone):

Popular usage: Everyone dreams of their big breakthrough.

Formal usage: Everyone dreams of his or her big breakthrough.

Grammar books are becoming increasingly accepting of the first version, but in academic writing you’re better off following the traditional rules of grammar.

Gender

The previous example shows that we can avoid sexist language by referring to both he and she (or him and her). However, doing so repeatedly can be cumbersome.

In such cases, rewrite the sentence and use a plural form:

Incorrect: Many an athlete was banned from the Olympics because he or she had tested positive for doping. Each one blamed his or her mistake on his or her coach.

Better: Many athletes were banned from the Olympics because they had tested positive for doping. They all blamed their mistake on their coaches.

A good rule of thumb is that if you have to use he and she (or him and her) twice in close succession it’s time to shift to the plural.

The final word

While vague pronoun reference can be annoying, so is being obsessive about it.

For one thing, in speech we tend to be more casual with pronouns. There are also some expressions where the pronoun does not need to have an antecedent (e.g., It is raining; It was reported).

Also in writing there is no need to start replacing every pronoun with a noun just because there is a hint of ambiguity. A little bit of common sense goes a long way.

Comma Splices and Fused Sentences

Introduction

When a sentence rambles on an on, you might end up with a comma splice or a fused sentence.

There is not much difference between the two:

  • A comma splice occurs when you’ve used a comma instead of a period.
  • A fused sentence is when you squeeze together two sentences with no punctuation in between.

Spotting the Error

You’ll notice these errors particularly if you read the following sentences aloud:

Comma splice: The rain has finally stopped, I think I will go for a stroll.

Fused sentence: The rain has finally stopped I think I will go for a stroll.

Correct: The rain has finally stopped. I think I will go for a stroll.

You can probably hear the break, and when you look closely you’ll notice that there is no conjunction that ties the two clauses together. Each clause is independent (it has at least a subject and a verb), but there is no grammatical connection between them.

Tip

Watch out for sentences with a dependent clause. Sometimes the dependent clause has been connected to two clauses instead of one:

Amsterdam is a beautiful city, though I’m not inclined to visit the Red Light district, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Dependent clause: though I’m not inclined to visit the Red Light district.

Correct: Amsterdam is a beautiful city. Though I’m not inclined to visit the Red Light district, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

In this case, the middle clause is mistakenly tied to both the first and last clause.

Clarification

There is one more term that is sometimes used to describe these mistakes. It’s the phrase run-on sentence.

Unfortunately, there is little agreement about what constitutes a run-on sentence. For some people the term refers to any time two clauses are joined without a coordinating conjunction (so both comma splices and fused sentences), whereas others limit it to just fused sentences. Others use it indiscriminately whenever they feel a sentence goes on a bit too long.

For the sake of clarity we will just talk about comma splices and fused sentences.

Fixing the problem

There are three easy ways to fix comma splices and fused sentences. Here they are, starting with the most common solution.

1. Simply put in a period (as in the example above).

2. Use a semi-colon if you think the clauses are closely related.

3. Connect the clauses with a conjunction.

If you decide to use a conjunction (the last solution), you’ll have to decide if the clauses have equal weight. If they do, you can use a coordinating conjunction:

The rain has finally stopped, so I think I will go for stroll.

If, on the other hand, you want to make one clause more important than the other, you can use a subordinating conjunction:

Since the rain has finally stopped, I think I will go for stroll.

It’s all a matter of emphasis.

Short clauses

When the main clauses in a sentence are very short, you can often get away with a comma splice. Here’s an example:

I love your dress, it’s so pretty.

This is not recommended in formal prose, but it’s not uncommon in creative writing, especially in dialogue.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Probably the biggest cause of comma splices is the incorrect use of conjunctive adverbs. These are words like however, moreover, and although. They connect separate sentences rather than two parts of the same sentence:

According to Swiss folklore, William Tell was an expert with a crossbow, in fact, he not only shot an apple off the head of his son, but he also assassinated the man who had ordered him to do so.

Conjunctive adverb: in fact

To fix this sentence you’ll have to insert a period or a semi-colon before the conjunctive adverb. If you want some further instruction on how to recognize this problem, please review the rules for conjunctive adverbs.

Sentence Fragments

Introduction

A sentence fragment is simply an incomplete sentence. Like this one.

Not all sentence fragments are bad. You can use a fragment for stylistic effect. But if you do, you should be deliberate about it.

Most sentence fragments happen because we have a habit of reading a sentence in context. Let’s say you come across the following passage:

Traveling is expensive. But if you plan ahead, you can save yourself a bundle of money. The key? Always pay off your credit card on time.

Only the first sentence is a complete sentence. It’s our mind that connects the ideas. For instance, we easily forget that but usually connects parts of the same sentence. In addition, when we ask questions, we often use sentence fragments.

If you are okay with such a casual approach then you might fix just the first fragment (by combining the two sentences). If you want a more formal tone, then you’ll have to do some further editing. As usual, everything depends on context. Blog posts have different standards than PhD dissertations.

Common Causes

It’s impossible to predict every kind of sentence fragment. Still, most fragments are the result of just two mistakes. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Conjunctions

Often a sentence starts with a conjunction that should actually be joined to the previous clause.

I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular. Because now our citizens will learn a new word.

Right: I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular, because now our citizens will learn a new word.
Right: I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular. Now our citizens will learn a new word.

In 1858, Japan agreed to the Harris Treaty. Even though it gave the United States increased access to Asian markets and limited Japanese sovereignty.

Right: In 1858, Japan agreed to the Harris Treaty, even though it gave the United States increased access to Asian markets and limited Japanese sovereignty.

Participles

Fragments also occur if you try to use a participle as the main verb. You may recall that present and past participles are verbals, and therefore cannot function like a regular verb.

A document known as the Donation of Constantine, stating that the Emperor Constantine had given the Pope the power to rule over the western half of the Roman Empire.

Right: A document known as the Donation of Constantine stated that the Emperor Constantine had given the Pope the power to rule over the western half of the Roman Empire.

So watch out for sentences that contain verbals, but no main verb!

Final Advice

The best way to spot fragments is to read every sentence on its own. Print out what you’ve written and read each sentence aloud. When you actually hear what your sentence sounds like, you’ll often be able to tell immediately if you have conveyed a complete thought.

Misplaced Modifiers

Introduction

A modifier is simply a descriptive part of a sentence (basically anything that acts like an adverb or an adjective). You want the modifier to be close to what it describes.

This is how not to do it:

Comedian Quentin Blakely visited our local pub, the one with the pink bathroom, where he performed quite a number.

You can see that the last clause should come right after the word pub, which is what it is meant to describe. If you see no easy way to fit in the other bit (the one with the pink bathroom) then use two separate sentences instead.

Common mistakes

Let’s review the most common causes of misplaced modifiers. Don’t let the range of examples confuse you. In fact, the problem is always the same: some descriptive words are in the wrong place.

Prepositional phrases

You may recall that prepositional phrases act like an adverb or an adjective. It’s important, then, to avoid mistakes like this:

I heard the news about the President’s assassination in my bed.

Correct: While I was still in bed, I heard the news about the President’s assassination.

Participial phrases

Other phrases can be misplaced as well. Here’s an example of a participial phrase that’s out of place:

We saw many paintings walking through the Louvre.

Correct: Walking through the Louvre, we saw many paintings.

Subject and verb

Sometimes there’s too much of a delay between the subject and the main verb:

Our Christmas cactus, which produces the most amazing pink flowers and gives us all joy during the long winter, is in bloom again.

Correct: Our Christmas cactus is in bloom again. It produces the most amazing pink flowers and gives us all joy during the long winter.

Relative clauses

The previous example also shows the problems that relative clauses can create. A relative clause starts with a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, that, whose) or a relative adverb (when, where, why). Here is an example of a misplaced relative clause:

Tim and Irene hired a name consultant to research the name for their baby that they had in mind.

Correct: Tim and Irene hired a name consultant to research the name that they had in mind for their baby.

Apposition

Since appositives also interrupt the flow of the sentence, they too can mess up your syntax:

I did a road trip with Frank Ostrogoth, an expert on Julius Caesar, who drove his Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Correct: I did a road trip with Frank Ostrogoth, an expert on Julius Caesar. Frank drove his Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Adverbs

Some adverbs are frequently placed too early in the sentence. The main culprit is only:

In my entire life, I’ve only slept in once or twice.

Correct: In my entire life, I’ve slept in only once or twice.

At first glance it may be hard to see what’s wrong. However, the incorrect sentence implies that the speaker has done very little in his or her life. He has done a bit of sleeping in, and that’s all.

Here’s another case of a misplaced adverb:

With my last lottery ticket I almost won a million dollars!

Correct: With my last lottery ticket I won almost a million dollars!

From a financial perspective, there is quite a difference between the two versions.

Expressions

Finally, if you’re using a common expression, don’t insert other words in the middle:

Please don’t put words that I never even said in my mouth.

Correct: Please don’t put words in my mouth that I never even said.

Finish the expression (putting words in my mouth) before you move on. If you find the result awkward, then rewrite some more.

And that’s in fact what you should do with any misplaced modifier. There’s no easy fix. Rearrange the syntax or add another sentence to convey your ideas clearly.

Dangling Modifiers

Introduction

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.

More Examples

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.

Review

Exercises