Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Are Your Modifiers Dangling?

Dangling Modifiers and Other Writing Faux Pas

by Peggy Blann Phifer

Image from Pixabay

They jump right out at you. We've all seen them, laughed at them, and wondered how they got past the editor. I'm talking about "dangling modifiers."

Let's look at a few:

"Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, the car seemed to run better."

"Quickly summoning an ambulance, the corpse was carried to the mortuary."

"Walking through the park, the coins fell through a hole in his pocket."

"Turning the corner, a handsome building appeared."

"Flying low, a herd of cattle could be seen."

"Watching from the ground, the birds flew higher until they disappeared."

All the words in front of the comma are 'dangling modifiers.' They just sit there--dangling--modifying nothing. They have no subject. We have a car changing its own oil. Coins walking in the park. A corpse calling the ambulance. A building turning the corner. Cattle flying low. And birds watching themselves fly.


When we begin a sentence with a modifying word, phrase, or clause, we have to make sure the next thing that comes along can, in fact, be modified by that modifier. When a modifier   improperly modifies something, it is called a 'dangling modifier.' This often happens with beginning participial phrases, making 'dangling participles' all too common.

So, we need to change these sentences, somehow, so they make sense:

"Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, Jack found that he got much better mileage."

"Quickly summoning an ambulance, witnesses watched as the corpse was carried to the mortuary." (I'm sure you can do better with this one! Give it a try.)

"Walking through the park, Bob never noticed the coins falling through a hole in his pocket."

I'll let you work on the other sentences while I go on to another common writing error. These are a bit more subtle, yet glaringly obvious to the writer's eye.

"Ramona prays fervently for her Grandmother's recovery at St. Matthews Church." (Her grandmother lives at the church?)

"He found the golf clubs that his father had used to win the U.S. Open in the car trunk." (Huh?)

"They reported that Giuseppe Bella, the European rock star, had died on the 6 o'clock news." (Hmm, bet THAT was exciting!)

Or how about these headlines…

"Stolen art found by tree in park!" (I can see it now: Oak Tree Opens Private Detective Agency.)

"Car crashes into store window going 60 miles per hour!" (I can see it now…speeding window collides with car.)

As you can see, writers must be careful in sentence construction. Most editors will catch them. But, apparently, from the examples above, not always. 

One last look at what I mean:

From the Wall Street Journal--"Once thought plentiful, the U.S. is now facing a shortage of natural gas that could last for years." Uh, the U.S. isn't as plentiful as we thought?

This was a dispatch from Miami Beach a number of years ago--

"The palazzo was the stately retreat of fashion designer Gianni Versace. Gunned down on the steps of his mansion, tourists come like pilgrims to a shrine in this playground of glamour." Gunned down tourists? Oh, my.

Hope this has been some fun for you. These examples are just a handful of those that appear all the time in newspapers, and, unfortunately, even books. Be sure what you write makes sense! Check what you write carefully. Don't leave it to editors to catch your errors--sometimes they won't.


  1. Oh, dear, Peg! I just finished my latest book and am about to send it my publisher. Now, because of you, I need to re-edit, again!

    1. Gulp! Sorry about that, Bonnie. Wait ... no I'm not. If this post caused you to stop and take another run through your ms, then it served its purpose. Hugs

  2. I see these headlines and sentence misconstructions almost daily from our local TV News station. Many stories are at least partially incomprehensible. It's a sad state of writing these days.

    1. I agree, Rich. A sentence beginning with a gerund should automatically wave a red flag ... at least it does to me. Thanks for dropping in.