The Dangling Modifier Problem

The term “dangling modifier” may sound like English teachers’ jargon to you, but it points to a real-world writing problem you should avoid in your reports.

“Dangling” means hanging, and a “modifier” is a description. So a “dangling modifier” is a description in the wrong place. A dangling modifier is usually easy to spot because it sounds ridiculous. Take a look at these examples:

Spattered around the room, Jones photographed the blood.  DANGLING MODIFIER

I spotted broken glass searching for evidence.  DANGLING MODIFIER

I saw a bloody knife walking through the bedroom.  DANGLING MODIFIER

Here are the corrected sentences:

Jones photographed the blood that was spattered around the room. CORRECT

While searching for evidence, I spotted broken glass . CORRECT

Walking through the bedroom, I saw a bloody knife. CORRECT

Sometimes adangling modifier is harder to spot. To most people, this sentence probably looks correct on first reading – but it isn’t:

Questioning inmate Kelly, he said his sister had bought the watch for him.  DANGLING MODIFIER

There are two problems with the sentence. First, Kelly didn’t do the questioning. Second, the sentence doesn’t specify who did. The omission might create a problem in a disciplinary hearing, when it’s important to identify all the parties involved.

Here’s the corrected sentence:

When I questioned inmate Kelly, he said his sister had bought the watch for him. CORRECT

Be careful when you start a sentence with an -ing word: Often it will contain a dangling modifier. If you do start a sentence with an -ing word, reword it to make sure it’s clear who did what.

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