What is a Dangling Modifier and How Can You Fix It?

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January 15, 2020
This month’s grammar topic is dangling modifiers. Sounds like what grammarians do when they’re looking for an adrenaline rush, but this type of dangling isn’t all that daring.

A dangling modifier is a part of a sentence that doesn’t clearly refer to its intended subject. This typically happens when the introduction of a sentence isn’t clearly tied to the noun doing the action (a similar topic to my post about unclear antecedents). Take this example:

While going through their EM board review materials, their notes were scattered on the table.

We get the gist of this sentence: multiple people are studying for their EM boards, and their notes are scattered on the table. But let’s dissect the sentence. Our introduction, “While going through their EM board review materials,” should lead to the subject—who is going through their EM board review materials? The next noun should be our answer, but the next noun is “notes.” Their notes are not studying—a group of people is studying.

While going through their EM board review materials” is a dangling modifier—it’s just sitting there waiting to refer to the sentence’s subject without ever getting the chance (aww). So how could we alter this sentence to remove the dangling modifier?

While going through their EM board review materials, the group scattered their notes on the table.

Now the subject after the introduction is “the group,” which precisely explains who is going through their EM board review materials (though they should consider keeping their notes a little tidier).

Here’s another example:

Also referred to as stasis eczema, clinical presentation may include scaling, erythema, and variable pruritus overlying areas of chronic edema.

What is this sentence referring to? It’s unclear because the sentence begins with a dangling modifier. The first part of the sentence, “Also referred to as stasis eczema,” should lead to the subject and clearly indicate the topic of the sentence, but what is the next noun? Clinical presentation. The topic happens to be stasis dermatitis, and since the sentences leading up to this example likely referred to stasis dermatitis, the reader probably knows what we’re talking about here. But it’s good practice to keep sentences as clear as possible. 

Also referred to as stasis eczema, stasis dermatitis may clinically present with scaling, erythema, and variable pruritus overlying areas of chronic edema.

Now the noun that comes after our introduction is “stasis dermatitis,” and our sentence no longer includes a dangling modifier. Phew!

Let’s try one more example. Does this sentence begin with a dangling modifier?

After completing their pediatric in-training exam, the residents went out for a celebratory dinner.

After completing their pediatric in-training exam” should lead to the subject of our sentence—whoever completed their pediatric in-training exam. Does it? *drumroll* Yes! “The residents” celebrated by going out to dinner. No dangling modifier here!


Clarity makes it easy for our readers to understand what we’re saying, so keep dangling modifiers in the back of your mind and make sure your subject clearly links to your introduction.


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