3 Sentences with Dangling Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Coming from my inexhaustible supply of dangling modifiers, you will find this post a helpful exercise in how to spot this type of error.

That lead sentence, of course, contains a dangling modifier, a phrase providing additional information about a sentence’s subject that does not associate directly with the subject. In this case, because the subject is you, the implication is that you, dear reader, rather than the contents of this post, are coming from the stated source. The sentence is better presented as follows: “You will find this post, coming from my inexhaustible supply of dangling modifiers, a helpful exercise in how to spot this type of error.” Here are a few sentences with the same class of mistake, followed by my suggested solutions:

1. “As the only one with a Muslim-sounding name in class, people turned to her on questions about Islam.
This sentence refers to “people” — representing a heretofore unmentioned individual’s classmates — rather than that person, as “the only one with a Muslim-sounding name in class,” so the initial modifying phrase should be revised to clearly identify the person consulted as described: “Because she was the only person in the class with a Muslim-sounding name, people turned to her on questions about Islam. (Also, the statement contains not only a dangling modifier but also a misplaced modifier — two distinct phenomena: The positioning of “in class” is not incorrect, but the phrase is best relocated earlier in the sentence, as I have done in my revision.)

However, the person could also be explicitly introduced as the subject of the sentence: “As the only person in class with a Muslim-sounding name, she was the one people turned to on questions about Islam.”

2. “After leaving Chez Fez, this chef’s culinary talents have reached the highest level at his new restaurant.”
The implication in this sentence, as constructed, is that the chef’s culinary talents somehow detached themselves from his being and found their zenith elsewhere. To reflect the writer’s true meaning, the modifier could be revised to refer to the actual subject (with an additional replacement of after with since): “Since this chef left Chez Fez, his culinary talents have reached the highest level at his new restaurant.”

Alternatively, the subject of the sentence must be unequivocally altered to refer to the chef himself, not his talents, which did leave his previous place of employment but did so as part of him: “Since leaving Chez Fez, this chef has found that his culinary talents have reached the highest level at his new restaurant.”

3. “As the foundation of Western civilization, learning about ancient Greece provides students a solid grounding in many of the philosophies that shape modern life and thought in the Western world.”
It is not learning about ancient Greece but ancient Greece itself that should be posited as the foundation of Western civilization. Begin the sentence with the reference to ancient Greece: “Ancient Greece is the foundation of Western civilization, and learning about it provides students a solid grounding in many of the philosophies that shape modern life and thought in the Western world.”

Another option is to begin with the participial phrase “Learning about ancient Greece” and making the phrase “as the foundation of Western civilization” an interspersed parenthetical: “Learning about ancient Greece, the foundation of Western civilization, provides students a solid grounding in many of the philosophies that shape modern life and thought in the Western world.”

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5 Responses to “3 Sentences with Dangling Modifiers”

  • Mikie!

    I am enjoying this blog! Thanks for writing it!!

    I have a question I’d love to see someone delve into. This particular article gets into some very common mistakes made in writing. Why are they so common? What drives these errors so consistently across very broad populations?

    Is it sloppy thinking? Is it a symptom of the sloppy culture?

  • thebluebird11

    The sad thing is, I actually understood the intended meanings of these sentences before you revised them. Sigh. One can get used to bad writing.
    I think it’s not so much an issue of sloppy thinking or even sloppy culture; I think that in some cases, people try to fancify their writing, change up the sentences so that they’re not all subject-verb-noun format. Unfortunately, they don’t realize how they bollox things up when they shift the parts of speech and phrases around. Plus, when people write, at least initially (ie prior to any editing that may occur), they probably write the way they think, and if they don’t have someone else proofread it, it never sounds “wrong” to them even when they themselves proof it.

  • Carol

    Wrong: As the only one with a Muslim-sounding name in class, people turned to her on questions about Islam.

    Right: Because she was the only person in the class with a Muslim-sounding name, people turned to her on questions about Islam.

    Gosh, with the exception of the placement of “in class” I don’t know that I see much of an improvement. Does the word “because” and the inclusion of a subject and verb make it okay? It’s still a phrase modifying the subject, isn’t it? Help! I don’t understand.

    What about turning the phrase into an appositive:
    People turned to her, the only one in class with a Muslim sounding name, for questions on Islam.

  • Mark Nichol

    Carol:

    Thanks for calling me on that sentence. I realize now that I simply substituted one dangling participle for another. (In my revision, she incorrectly points to people, rather than to her.)

    Here are two logical solutions:
    “Because she was the only person in the class with a Muslim-sounding name, she became the expert on questions about Islam.”

    “She found that because she was the only person in the class with a Muslim-sounding name, people turned to her on questions about Islam.”

    Your appositive solution works, too.

  • Warsaw Will

    @Mark, your original correction was fine, and you can’t have substituted one dangling participle for another, because neither the original example nor your first correction contained a participle. An elliptical clause (I think) in the first one, but not a participle. But I do agree with you about shifting ‘in the class’.

    ‘Because she was the only person in the class with a Muslim-sounding name, people turned to her on questions about Islam.’

    As I understand it, the fact that the first clause now has a subject and a finite verb does make it okay, even for purists: each clause has its own subject and verb, so nothing is left dangling.

    But if you wanted to stress ‘her’ in the second clause without changing the sentence too much, you could always use a cleft:

    ‘Because she was the only person in the class with a Muslim-sounding name, it was her that people turned to on questions about Islam.’

    I think that the reason Carol doesn’t see much difference between the two versions is exactly because the original was totally understandable and unambiguous, as probably are most genuine dangling modifiers. They are only a problem if you think danglers are some heinous crime. Most of the really stupid ones bandied about have been specially invented for the purpose.

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