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Dangling Modifier: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Dangling Modifier?
  • 1:45 Examples
  • 7:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Sometimes, there's a big difference between what a sentence should mean and what it actually says. One of the most common causes of this problem is known as a dangling modifier. In this lesson, we'll learn how to spot dangling modifiers and how to resolve the problems they cause.

What Is a Dangling Modifier?

Before we jump into the subject of this lesson, we have to define a few key terms. First things first, a modifier is any word or phrase that changes (or modifies) the meaning of another word or phrase. It is important to note that adjectives (such as 'red') and adverbs (such as 'quickly') aren't the only kinds of modifiers out there. In fact, some modifiers don't use any adjectives or adverbs at all. For example, in the phrase 'the house on the hill,' the words 'on the hill' modifies the meaning of 'the house' because it tells us where the house is located.

Next, let's talk about clauses. To put it simply, a clause is a part of a sentence. Some sentences only have one clause (such as 'I walked to the park'), but more complex sentences contain multiple clauses. For the purposes of this lesson, we'll be looking at how introductory clauses can affect the meaning of a whole sentence. An introductory clause is a clause that leads us into the main clause. For example, in the sentence 'After eating breakfast, I walked to the park,' the clause 'After eating breakfast' introduces the rest of the sentence by giving us a sense of time.

Now that we've armed ourselves with these terms, let's turn our attention to the heart of the matter: dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is simply a modifier that isn't clearly attached to another part of the sentence (hence the word 'dangling'). Because dangling modifiers muddle the meaning of a sentence, they create ambiguity (a situation where a sentence can be read as having several different meanings). With that in mind, let's look at two (somewhat silly) examples of dangling modifiers.

Examples

Example #1: Mouse in Pajamas

Consider the following sentence:

Putting on my pajamas, a mouse ran across the floor.

Try to put yourself into the scene that this sentence creates (perhaps you've already had a similar experience). The speaker of the sentence is putting on his or her pajamas when a mouse runs across the floor. Simple enough, right? However, if you look closely at each clause of the sentence, you'll realize that something's amiss.

The introductory clause ('Putting on my pajamas') brings us into the scene, but it also acts as a modifier. Logically, we assume that this clause exists to modify 'I' (the speaker of the sentence), showing us that the speaker is putting on his or her pajamas when the action of the sentence occurs. However, there is no 'I' to be found in the main clause, so the phrase 'Putting on my pajamas' is technically modifying the subject of the main clause ( 'a mouse'). Therefore, the situation in this sentence is pretty strangeā€¦the mouse is putting on the speaker's pajamas!

Common sense tells us to interpret the sentence one way, but the meaning is very different if we read the sentence literally. This is an excellent example of the ambiguity that dangling modifiers create. So, how do we resolve this ambiguity? We rewrite the sentence so that there is a clear connection between the modifier and the intended subject ('I') of the sentence. This can be done in at least two ways.

The first method of resolving a dangling modifier is to make the actual subject a part of the introductory clause. Let's see what happens when we bring 'I' into the introductory clause of our example:

While I was putting on my pajamas, a mouse ran across the floor.

Obviously, the meaning of this sentence is much clearer, but it has a slightly different feel to it. This is because the introductory clause has become more like an independent clause (a clause that can stand on its own). To put it another way, if we cut the word 'While,' the clause would read as a complete sentence ('I was putting on my pajamas'). Now, let's move onto the second way of resolving dangling modifiers, which involves adding more information to the main clause of the sentence:

Putting on my pajamas, I saw a mouse run across the floor.

This sentence has a feel that's much closer to the original example, but there is no ambiguity to be found. This is because the original modifier ('Putting on my pajamas') hasn't changed at all. Rather, now that we've made adjustments to the main clause of the sentence, the subject of the modifier has been made clearer. Of course, each of these methods of resolving dangling modifiers works equally well. It's just a matter of how close you want the feel of the revised sentence to be to the original.

Example #2: Clouds on the Street

Now, let's put what we've learned into practice. Here is another (slightly surreal) example:

Walking down the street, the clouds burst into rain.

Once again, there's a considerable gap between what the sentence should mean and what it actually says. Unless the author of this sentence is describing how rain clouds walk down the street, it's very likely that we're facing another dangling modifier ('Walking down the street'). So, let's try revising the sentence using both of the methods we learned in the previous section.

Here's the first method (adding to the introductory clause):

While Steve was walking down the street, the clouds burst into rain.

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