7 Dos for Dangling Modifiers

By Mark Nichol

In each of the sentences below, the noun phrase immediately following the introductory phrase is not the referent for that phrase; you have to keep working through the sentence and locate another noun, or, sometimes, surgically separate a “(noun)’s (noun)” phrase to isolate the correct one.

1. “If asked what will reverse the trend, my first response would be cynical but probably accurate.”
In this sentence, “my first response” is being asked a question. The person, not their response, is the target of the query. In this case, introduce a subject into the introductory phrase: “If I were asked what will reverse the trend, my first response would be cynical but probably accurate.”

2. “Seen mainly as the brainchild of frontman Jack White, the band’s breakthrough came at the start of the new millennium.”
The band’s breakthrough, rather than the band itself, is identified as the brainchild. Here, introduce the subject, follow with the introductory phrase as a parenthesis, and conclude by referring to the details of the breakthrough: “The breakthrough for the band, seen mainly as the brainchild of frontman Jack White, came at the start of the new millennium.”

3. “For a representative of a country that is one of the United States’s most important allies in Asia, her language is notably candid.”
This sentence suffers from an almost identical problem, except that, instead of a noun with a possessive, it features a possessive pronoun: The solution, however, is different: Convert the possessive pronoun to an ordinary one and attach a pertinent verb: “For a representative of a country that is one of the United States’s most important allies in Asia, she used language that is notably candid.”

4. “As a longtime holiday city, hotel options range widely in Luna Azul.”
This sentence identifies “hotel options,” not “Luna Azul,” the longtime holiday city. To correct this error, reverse the order of these phrases and revise the intervening wording: “As a longtime holiday city, Luna Azul features a wide range of hotel options.”

5. “Created in 1972 by the United Nations to stimulate awareness of the environment, San Francisco will be the first North American city to host World Environment Day.”
According to this sentence, San Francisco was created by the United Nations in 1972: Depending on the emphasis, start with the city’s name as the subject or recast the sentence to emphasize the observance: “San Francisco will be the first North American city to host”; “World Environment Day, created in 1972 by the United Nations to stimulate awareness of the environment, will be celebrated in San Francisco, the first North American city to host the festivities.”

6. “Clearly organized, each tree receives its own entry in the book that includes its cultivation requirements, uses in its native land, historical anecdotes, and more.”
Here, the writer credits each tree with being clearly organized, but the book is the subject, so make it the subject: “The book is clearly organized, and each tree receives its own entry, which includes its cultivation requirements, uses in its native land, historical anecdotes, and more.”

7. “Based on a play, you can see its theatrical, neatly formed vignettes unfolding right in front of you.”
Art imitates life, and vice versa, but to my knowledge, I’m not based on a play: But it — in this case, a movie — is: “It’s based on a play, and you can see its theatrical, neatly formed vignettes unfolding right in front of you.”

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10 Responses to “7 Dos for Dangling Modifiers”

  • thebluebird11

    You know, the funny thing is that I understand pretty much what the author of each sentence intended. Yet, it seems that in each case, the author attempted to scratch the left ear with the right hand, so to speak, basically going through contortions, for some reason that I don’t understand, that complicated a straightforward idea. Maybe the authors were insecure in their writing skills and thought they had to dress things up, shift things around, fancify them to make them more interesting? In the past, DWT has given tips on how to make writing more interesting, and suggestion was to change up the sentence structure. However, the above examples are obviously NOT the way!

  • Roberta B.

    I agree with “thebluebird11.” Pull this one, re-read, and start over since it’s a useful topic. Write the intro paragraph in the affirmative. State what each of the poorly constructed sentence sounds like, and then show what the new sentence is supposed to mean. The simple rule I learned on this topic is to place the modified noun immediately after the comma. This topic is worth a second attempt to be more easily understood.
    BTW – #2 still doesn’t solve the problem. I’m still not sure what the “brainchild” is supposed to be modifying – the “breakthrough” or the “band.”

  • thebluebird11

    And I agree with Roberta!
    I think a better way to re-cast example #2 would be, “The band, seen mainly as the brainchild of frontman Jack White, had its breakthrough at the start of the new millennium.”
    Didn’t DWT just have a whole discussion about all these phrases, use of commas to set them off, etc?
    And as long as I’m picking everything apart (isn’t that what we do best?):
    In the first example, I would re-word it as “If I were asked what WOULD reverse the trend…”
    In the third example, I would simply re-cast the sentence as follows: “Her language is notably candid for a representative of a country that is one of the United States’ most important allies in Asia.”
    The other sentences could also probably benefit from being re-cast.

  • Pigsflew

    For #2, I would put the band first, not the breakthrough:

    “The band, seen mainly as the brainchild of frontman Jack White, had it’s breakthrough at the start of the millenium.”

  • Becky the Floridian

    Totally off the subject, I transgress. Was that a White Stripes/Dead Weather reference? Nice.

  • John White

    I agree these are taboo, but the real artistry lies in a crafty rejoinder.

    My friend and I both have children applying for college. Today he wrote me, “Those colleges tend to say on their websites that they’ll let us know by April 1. Every day when we check the mailbox, it is fraught with anticipation.”

    “Yes,” I replied, “we have a mailbox like that, too.”

  • thebluebird11

    @Becky: On this website, we digress all the time…don’t worry, we forgive you; it’s not a transgression. 😉

  • Precise Edit

    My favorite dangling modifier: “Swimming happily along the shore, the corpse floated by his head.”

    The subject (implied or stated) of the introductory phrase or clause needs to be the same as the subject for the main sentence. By doing so, a writer will solve all problems with dangling modifiers.

  • Stu

    bluebird — right on; long live the subjunctive.

  • venqax

    No! May the subjncitve not be.

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