Ask the Editor #2: What is a Dangling Modifier?



A dangling modifier is a phrase or word that alters the meaning of another phrase or word. These include adjectives, adverbs, and other modifying phrases and clauses. When modifying a word or phrase, you have to be very careful because their meanings can be altered easily. One of the ways this can happen is through the use of dangling modifiers. Modifiers add more information to a sentence; however, they can be misplaced or misused to create different or confusing meanings from a simple sentence.

Dangling modifiers are phrases or words that modify words not evidently stated in the sentence. Dangling modifiers are used to create ambiguity; they are also used to give a sentence several meanings. It is like trying to hide the true meaning of a sentence leaving the reader to guess and interpret according to their understanding.

A dangling modifier can make it difficult to understand a sentence in its original context. Remember, clarity is key here and a confused reader runs the risk of them putting your novel down and never picking it up again.

Example 1

Raising the shotgun, the zombies moaned endlessly.

In the sentence above, the dangling modifier made it appear as though the zombies raised the shotgun, this is because the zombies are the only subject provided in the sentence. To give your expression a clearer meaning, you can say:

Raising the shotgun, Ted heard the zombies moan endlessly.

Now things are clearer and we know for sure these aren’t zombies raising a single shotgun!

 Example 2

Having arrived late for the pending zombie slaughter, an explanation was demanded.

Who arrived late? This sentence is another example where the subject is missing or unclear.

To modify, determine who really arrived late. The likely revision may likely appear like this:

Having arrived late for the pending zombie slaughter, Big Boss demanded an explanation from Ted.

Now things are a bit clearer as we have our subject: Big Boss.

Of course, we could clean this a little further here as we are still left a little uncertain: who arrived late?

Example 3

Here is an example of a modifier that is not regarded as “dangling” but is still a little unclear.

Without knowing his name, it was hard not to think of him as anything more than zombie food.

Who didn’t know his name? This phrase says that “it” did not know his name. To revise, find out who was trying to introduce him.

The likely revision may be:

Because Big Boss did not know his name, it was hard to see Ted as anything more than zombie food.

The sentence is now complete and is clear to the reader so it is not regarded as “dangling.”

As you might see now, dangling modifiers usually involve missing subjects or unclear subjects. These tend to crop up during the first draft but are something you should always scrutinize your manuscript for. Ask yourself: who is the subject? Is it clear who performed the action? Ask a friend or beta if anything was unclear or if any sentences tripped them up. If there is any confusion, cut and revise!

I do not know of any programs which can detect this automatically, so eliminating these dangling modifiers requires work on the writer just as much as the editor.

So, what are your thoughts about dangling modifiers? Having read this, dangling modifiers are understood or do you have any further questions?

Let me know in the comments section below.


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