Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Misplaced and dangling modifiers are common writing mistakes, and they usually manifest themselves when writers use a string of prepositional or participial phrases. The writer intends for the modifier to describe a particular word, but the modifier floats free of its intended object, muddying the meaning of the sentence. As a result, misplaced and dangling modifiers often suggest mistaken—and sometimes, inadvertently humorous—meanings for the sentences in which they exist.

A misplaced modifier, as its name suggests, finds itself in the wrong position in a sentence, perhaps modifying the wrong word. The following sentences have misplaced modifiers, which I have italicized:

The naughty boy in the hallway with the red hair is in trouble.
I never knew I had an aunt in the city named Sánchez.
The man in the river with the red striped bathing suit has a handlebar moustache.
Clenching his teeth on a cigarette, the baby cried as the evil man snatched him from his crib.

In each case, the modifier’s misplacement confuses the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence seems to describe a hirsute hallway, the second refers to a city named Sánchez, the third suggests that the river sports a jaunty pair of swim trunks, and the fourth that an infant has a nasty smoking habit.

A misplaced modifier problem is usually easy to solve. Merely switching the word order of the sentence will usually render its meaning clear, although some reworking of the sentence might be necessary.

The naughty red-headed boy in the hallway is in trouble. (While “The naughty boy with the red hair in the hallway is in trouble.” might work, it still seems to suggest a hallway with a hair problem.)
I never knew I had an aunt named Sánchez in the city.
The man with the red striped bathing suit has handlebar moustache. (Depending on the context, “in the river” might already be understood and might be unnecessary to the sentence. If “in the river” is an integral part of the sentence, some more significant rewriting might be necessary.)
Clenching his teeth on a cigarette, the evil man snatched the crying baby from his crib.

A dangling modifier is one that seems to modify a word that is not in the sentence at all. The reader is left to wonder what or whom the writer means to modify. The following sentences each have dangling modifiers, which I have italicized:

Wearing bright orange sandals, the dress looked very stylish.
Blowing out the candle, it was suddenly very dark.
Unable to solve the difficult problems, the test was impossible to do.
Driving a flashy sports car, we stood on the sidewalk in amazement.

In each of the first three sentences above, the dangling modifier begins with a participle. In all four cases, the dangling modifiers confuse the meanings of the sentences, because the words they are meant to modify do not appear. As the sentences now read, it seems as though the dress is wearing orange sandals, the candle has been blown out by some unidentified entity, the test itself is having trouble with its own problems, and the gawkers are simultaneously on the sidewalk and behind the wheel of a flashy car.

Correcting a dangling modifier sometimes requires completely rewriting the sentence. The writer usually needs to determine and express the word being modified. When rewritten in the most basic way, the above four sentences read as follows:

Wearing bright orange sandals, she looked very stylish in the dress.
Blowing out the candle, he left the room in sudden darkness.
Unable to solve the difficult problems, we found the test impossible to do.
When he drove the sports car, we stood on the sidewalk in amazement.

Of course, all of the above sentences can be reworked with more panache and linguistic style, but at the very least, their modifiers now have words to modify.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about misplaced and dangling modifiers.

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