Back To Course11th Grade English: Tutoring Solution
19 chapters | 229 lessons
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Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.
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.
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 strange…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.
Just as in the previous example, using this method gives the introductory clause more weight. In this version of the sentence, greater emphasis is placed on the fact that Steve is walking down the street. What was originally the main clause ('the clouds burst into rain') seems slightly less important, as if the rain were simply something happening in the background.
Now, let's see what happens if we apply the second method (adding to the main clause):
Walking down the street, Steve saw the clouds burst into rain.
In this version of the sentence (which leaves the original modifier 'exactly' as it was), the original main clause definitely carries more emphasis. The nature of this sentence makes us focus on the action of 'Steve saw the clouds burst into rain,' rather than causing us to focus on the fact that Steve is walking. Once again, one part of the sentence's action fades slightly into the background.
So, what do we do with these differences in emphasis or 'feel'? Technically speaking, both versions of the sentence are absolutely correct. Still, when revising dangling modifiers, it's important to consider the context of the sentence. To put it simply, context refers to the information that's around the sentence.
For example, if the author went on to describe what Steve did to avoid the rain, then the first revision of the sentence ('While Steve was walking . . .') would fit the feel of that passage. On the other hand, if the author launched into a detailed description of what the rain looked like, the second revision ('Steve saw the clouds . . . ') would make more sense. So, when deciding how to fix a dangling modifier, always look for clues in the context that surrounds a sentence. If there aren't any clues to be found, then simply choose whichever method feels right for you.
Let's review. A modifier is any word or phrase that changes the meaning of (or modifies) another word or phrase. Because modifiers often appear in introductory clauses (phrases that appear before the main clause of a sentence), dangling modifiers are most commonly found in this part of the sentence. Dangling modifiers 'dangle' because they aren't clearly attached to the actual subject of a sentence (resulting in ambiguity). Depending on the context of the sentence, you can fix dangling modifiers by adding more information to either the introductory clause or the main clause.
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Back To Course11th Grade English: Tutoring Solution
19 chapters | 229 lessons