August 20, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: dangling modifiers

Posted in dangling modifier at 6:35 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

No doubt you’ve covered this before, but the dangling or misplaced subject or object or whatever the heck it is

This morning, in the otherwise excellent remembrance of Julian Bond, the reported said (in speaking of Julian Bond):

  “Born Horace Julian Bond in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1940, Bond’s father was a college president…”

No! Bond’s father wasn’t born in 1940, you knucklehead, Bond was!

Oh, my word…

Yup, we have done this before (, but it was four years ago, and the definition was a bit on the technical side (think verbal phrases, participles, and gerunds, etc.), so let’s give it another shot.

First, it’s most often called a dangling modifier. As you know, a modifier is a word or phrase that adds description. Usually, the word or subject being modified immediately follows or is close to the modifier. For example:

Running after the train, the commuter grabbed the door handle and jumped aboard.

In this case, the modifier describes the commuter—he is running after the train when he jumps on. But if the modifier is not adjacent to or near the word it is modifying or not in the sentence at all, it is dangling and doesn’t help us understand the meaning of the sentence. For example:

Heavy with apples, the boy lithely climbed the tree to get the fruit.

The boy isn’t heavy with apples, the tree is. The sentence would be clearer if the modifier didn’t dangle. For example:

Heavy with apples, the tree beckoned to the hungry boy.


Here’s another example of a dangling modifier:

Having been to Three Rivers Stadium, Heinz Field is less impressive.

Here, the word being modified isn’t even in the sentence. This is one way to correct it:

Having been to Three Rivers Stadium, I decided that Heinz Field was not as impressive.

Unintentional dangling modifiers are often humorous:

Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.

Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.

She handed out brownies to the children stored in tupperware.

I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.

With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena.

I saw the dead dog driving down the interstate.

Holding a bag of groceries, the roach flew out of the cabinet.

Emitting thick black smoke from the midsection, I realized something was wrong.

The girl was consoled by the nurse who had just taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

I saw an accident walking down the street.

Drinking beer at a bar, the car would not start.

Mrs. Daniel sews evening gowns just for special customers with sequins stitched on them.

Although exhausted and weary, the coach kept yelling, “Another lap!”

She carefully studied the Picasso hanging in the art gallery with her friend.

Having an automatic stick shift, Nancy bought the car.

Freshly painted, Jim left the room to dry.

He wore a straw hat on his head, which was obviously too small.


And I’ll end this with a well-known dangling modifier by Groucho Marx:

“The other day, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

Ta dum dum.


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