The role of a modifier in a sentence is to clarify or describe a thing, person or concept. When we talk about a modifier as being ‘dangling’ or ‘misplaced’ it means that what it should be attached to is missing or that it’s attached to the wrong subject. This will all make much more sense with a few examples.
Here’s an example of a modifier (in green) being used correctly:
The modifier tells us what was done, but doesn’t tell us who did it, so this has to appear in the clause that follows. In the case above, it does – we know that it was Tarquin who did this, so everything is clear.
Let’s look at a less helpful sentence:
This might seem to make sense, but if we look at the second clause, it doesn’t tell us who the subject of the first is. Indeed, this reads as though it’s the escape plan itself that doesn’t want to be in prison, which is clearly silly. This is a dangling modifier.
So, when we encounter dangling or misplaced modifiers, what can be done about them?
Fixing dangling and misplaced modifiers
There are a few strategies we can use. We’ll consider some examples and how we might correct them.
A misplaced modifier often arises because the thing it’s supposed to be attached to is too far away from it in the sentence. Consider this:
While the intention might be obvious, the sentence lacks clarity – does ‘oversized’ refer to the trophy or the winner? With misplaced modifiers, the best course is just to move the modifier closer to its subject:
For dangling modifiers, one obvious solution is simply to add the missing subject. Take this example:
We just need to add a name or pronoun (as appropriate) to make clear who we’re referring to.
We could also add the identity of the subject to the modifier itself:
We can also combine the two clauses into one to remove the dangling modifier, as below.
This could become:
Hopefully, this has highlighted the issue of dangling and misplaced modifiers for you. For more common writing errors, check out our guide.
Unfortunately, there’s no secret formula to spotting them when they occur; they are just something the sharp-eyed proofreader learns to notice. Nonetheless, being aware of them is a good start! Take our quick dangling modifiers quiz to help you get your eye in.