How to identify and avoid dangling modifiers

academics grammar

One of the most common grammatical pitfalls students encounter when writing essays and personal statements is the dangling modifier.

What is a dangling modifier?

Dangling modifiers are usually introductory phrases that suggest but do not name an actor, such as, “Having burned the toast…” or “Upon entering high school…”. 

When the suggested actor is not the subject of the sentence, the modifier dangles. Confusion follows.

Below, I give examples of common dangling modifiers and show how to correct them.

“As an X…” constructions

The construction “As an X…” appears often in personal statements. If you use this construction, make sure you’re not introducing a dangling modifier.

Take for example:

“As a young woman, Aristotle fascinated me with his theory of rhetoric.”

This admirable writer means to say that when she was a young woman, she was fascinated by Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric. As written, the sentence inadvertently suggests that Aristotle, not her, was the young woman.

Better to say:

“When I was a young woman, Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric fascinated me.”

Or:

“As a young woman, I was fascinated by Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric.” (The passive voice here is forgivable but not ideal.)

Example 2: Present participles (“-ing” words)

Present participles are verb forms in which an “-ing” is added to the verb stem. If you must start a sentence with a present participle, do not do so idly: this verb form is danger-prone and dangle-prone. 

For example:

“Upon entering the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson caught my attention.” 

This sentence conveys the meaning that Jefferson, not the writer, entered the University, at which time he caught the writer’s attention. Jefferson did no such thing, because he is dead. 

The writer means to say: 

“Soon after I entered the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson caught my attention.”

Or:

“Upon entering the University of Virginia, I became more interested in Thomas Jefferson.”

Constructions involving passive voice

In active sentences, the subject does the action (“Jane kicks the ball”). In passive voice, the action is done to the subject (“the ball was kicked by Jane”). 

In general, you should try to avoid passive voice. If you must use passive voice in a particular sentence, do so consciously and for good reason.

Sentences involving passive voice—like “As an X…” constructions and participial phrases—are prone to dangling modifiers.

For example:

“Eager to learn, the book about lobsters was read.”

This sentence conveys the impression that the book—not the writer—was eager to learn. And, because of passive voice, we don’t know who (or what) read the book about lobsters!

Better to say:

“Eager to learn, I read the book about lobsters.”

Takeaways

Dangling modifiers are common, but easy to correct. All you need to do is say, in your sentences, who does what.

For example: 

“After reading the book, I became more interested in Estonia.”

NOT:

“After reading the book, Estonia became more interesting.”

You are reading the book—not Estonia.

Identify and fix dangling modifiers by reviewing what you have written. Scrutinize the introductory phrases of your sentences. If you open with a phrase that does not name the subject of the sentence, take another look to make sure your modifier doesn’t dangle. 

By rooting out dangling modifiers, you will improve the clarity and force of your writing.

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