The Red Pen: Dangling Modifiers


Dangling: good for trained soldiers in rescue missions, bad for modifiers.

Pardon me, but your modifier appears to be dangling….

Dangling or misplaced modifiers are feats of grammatical ambiguity that can create awkwardness for writers. A modifier is a phrase, clause or word that provides description in a sentence. Dangling or misplaced modifiers occur when that description is positioned in such a way that it could apply to more than one element of a sentence.

Example: Groucho Marx famously quipped, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

What makes Marx’s statement so hilarious is the vague placement of “in my pajamas.” You could understand the sentence to mean the subject is shooting while wearing pajamas . . . or you could read it to mean that the subject is shooting a pajama-clad elephant.

Another example, this time unintentionally funny: “After years of being lost under a pile of dust, Walter P. Stanley, III, left, found all the old records of the Bangor Lions Club.” (Bangor Daily News, 20 January 1978)

So what was lost for years under the pile of dust—the records of the Bangor Lions Club, or poor Walter P. Stanley, III?

How to un-dangle your modifiers

Dangling modifiers are often the result of long, cumbersome sentences by writers who are aiming for syntactical variety or sophistication. Neither of those aims are bad—but a writer’s first job is clarity, and sacrificing precision for style’s sake can make for frustrated, confused readers. If your writing suffers from dangling modifiers, consider splitting your sentences apart at the clause.

Example: Drooling into a paper cup and wincing, the dentist administered anesthesia to his patient.

Fix: The patient winced and drooled into a paper cup. The dentist administered anesthesia to him.

Of course, there are easier (and smoother) ways to clarify. Dangling modifiers are usually the result of an awkward introductory clause, or a description that comes at the beginning of the sentence. In this case, “drooling into a paper cup and wincing” is closer to the dentist in the sentence—not his patient. Beginning with an independent clause and putting your modifier closer to its intended target clarifies quite a bit about the professionalism of your dentist:

Fix: The dentist administered anesthesia to the patient, who winced and drooled into a paper cup.

In this case, our drooler is understood to be the “who,” thanks to the word’s proximity to “patient.”

The bottom line

Save the giggles for Groucho and simplify your syntax. If a more complex sentence is necessary, construct it with a careful eye: is your modifier close enough to its subject for the reader to understand your meaning?

Otherwise, you may find yourself, like this CNN correspondent, in the grammatical (and political) doghouse: “Like most dogs, Mitt Romney says his dog Seamus liked fresh air.”



Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.


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