Here’s another helpful guest post from my husband and fellow grammarphile, Greg Walker. Enjoy!
To be perfectly fair, we love dangling modifiers. They are some of the most fun that grammarians can have! “What is this alleged ‘dangling modifier’ of which you speak, and why is it the source of such entertainment to you, you grammar bully?” I hear you cry. Let us take a moment to define them and master them. And, after that, you will only use them when you want to take the lunch money away from some grammar incompetent.
What is a Dangling Modifier?
Let us start with the simpler question: What is a modifier? A modifier is a word or phrase that provides extra detail about a concept. Take the following example:
After having killed his wife and her lover, Canio was truly a sad clown.
The fundamental fact being communicated in this sentence is, “Canio was truly a sad clown.” The opening phrase provides some information about why Canio was sad, but it is not necessary to the sentence. In this case, it modifies the sentence clearly and correctly—you know that it is diagramming the actions taken by Canio and there is no question about it.
A dangling or misplaced modifier is one where what it is intended to modify is not clear. This happens when it is not obvious if the modifier is supposed to refer to the subject or the object of a sentence. In the following example, can you clearly state what the modifier refers to?
Flying over the African landscape, the elephant herd looked magnificent.
Common sense would dictate that the writer is sharing that they were in an aircraft flying over the African landscape when they viewed the elephant herd, but because of the manner in which it is written, we have to wonder if there were a herd of magnificent flying elephants.
Or in the following example, what was smashed?
Smashed beyond repair, Bert saw his watch lying on the court.
Again, common sense tells us that Bert is viewing his smashed watch, but the modifier is written in such a way that it is uncertain if it refers to Bert or to his watch.
Modifiers are not always introductory phrases. In the following examples they are integral to the main sentence:
The hunter crouched behind a tree waiting for a bear to come along with a bow and arrow.
We saved the scraps of meat for the dog that had been left on our plates.
In any of these cases, an extra word or two could restructure the sentence to make the modifiers quite clear. For example, the last sentence could be reworded: We saved the scraps of meat left on our plates for the dog.
Or the bear sentence would not be as amusing, but much clearer if it was reworded: The hunter crouched behind a tree with a bow and arrow, waiting for a bear to come along.
This is an easy issue to avoid simply by taking the time to re-read your work and add clarification where it is appropriate. In compound and complex sentences, be sure that both halves of the sentence relate to one another—whilst it is certainly possible to create an grammatically correct sentence with unrelated parts, this practice contributes to the confusion of the reader, and clarity to the initiated reader is really what our job is all about.