5 Cases of Dangling Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

Take care that when you begin a sentence with a subordinate clause—a string of words that does not stand on its own as a complete statement but supports the main clause—the modifying phrase pertains to the sentence’s subject and not to some other noun or noun phrase. Here are five sentences that fail the test, with explanations and revisions.

1. Despite being reluctant to start a film career, Alan Rickman’s initial foray into cinema found him nearly stealing Die Hard away from Bruce Willis and cementing his status as a master of memorable bad guys.

This sentence suggests that Alan Rickman’s movie debut was reluctant to begin a career in film. The modifying phrase must refer specifically to the person, not to a reference to something about the person, to repair this illogical error; simply insert his name, change the adjective reluctant to the noun reluctance, and, in the subject of the sentence, change his name to a pronoun: “Despite Alan Rickman’s reluctance about starting a film career, his initial foray into cinema found him nearly stealing Die Hard away from Bruce Willis and cementing his status as a master of memorable bad guys.”

2. Stopped up on blocks, I can see the boat from keel to top deck.

Writers (or their editors) can often fix dangling modifiers—here, the writer describes herself, not the boat, as being stopped up on blocks—by starting the sentence with a subject and inserting the modifier as a parenthetical in the middle of the sentence: “I can see the boat, stopped up on blocks, from keel to top deck.”

3. Undrafted in 1987, the team welcomed John Smith to the franchise.

John Smith, not the team, was undrafted in 1987, so, as with the previous example, exchange the modifying phrase and the subject to create a correct sentence: “The team welcomed John Smith, undrafted in 1987, to the franchise.

4. Bottled at the source, natural pressure forces the water toward a sealed delivery system.

Again, starting with the subject is usually the best approach to repairing a dangling modifier. The water, not natural pressure, is bottled at the source, as is obvious in this revision: “The water, bottled at the source, is carried by natural pressure toward a sealed delivery system.”

5. With a successful track record at a young age, Smith decided that Jones was the man for the job.

Who has the successful track record at a young age? The context may not be clear from this sentence presented in isolation, but Smith, the prospective employer, is impressed with job candidate Jones’s background, though the impressive track record could also pertain to Smith, so Jones’s name should be attached to the achievement to make it clear that this is what Smith finds appealing about Jones: “With Jones’s successful track record at a young age, Smith decided that he was the man for the job.” Better yet, also provide the sentence with a stronger start to replace the weak with: “Impressed by Jones’s successful track record at a young age, Smith decided that he was the man for the job.”

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2 Responses to “5 Cases of Dangling Modifiers”

  • venqax

    By dangling, I can see why those modifiers are dangerous.

  • Anne-Marie

    Not sure about the revisions on #5. The original is definitely wrong, but the phrase “at a young age” seems to throw off the whole sentence. I may not be grammatically correct on this, but “from a young age” seems less “off” to me.

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