Grammar Tips: Excuse Me. Your Modifier Is Dangling.

by Dodici Azpadu

061957-firey-orange-jelly-icon-people-things-people-singing200Dangling modifiers hint at a subject, but fail to refer logically to any words in the sentence. They cause confusion; occasionally, they cause a smile. Easy to correct, dangling modifiers are often difficult to spot. Look at the sentences below.

As a young man, my sister often pushed her girlfriends on me.
Seated in the car, the soft music filled my ear buds.

We can usually grasp the meaning of these faulty sentences, but when a sentence opens with a modifying word or clause, readers expect the subject of the next clause to name the actor of the modification.

We cannot simply move the modifier to a different part of the sentence. Look what happens to the examples.

My sister often pushed her girlfriends on me as a young man. [The gender is still mixed.]
The soft music filled my ear buds seated in the car. [Along with your tush.]

Repair the sentence by naming the actor in the subject of the sentence or in the modifier.

When I was a young man, my sister often pushed her girlfriends on me.
Seated in the car, I listened to soft music fill my ear buds.

Sometimes modifiers are simply misplaced. My personal favorite follows.

The bandit was a six-foot-tall cowboy with a heavy mustache, weighing 160 pounds.

Readers should be able to see immediately the relationship of the words. In order to avoid dangling modifiers, we are sometimes in a hurry to name a subject.

The politician, after years of corruption, greed, and nepotism, was voted out of office.

Generally, we should avoid long phrases that separate a subject and verb. Try this:

After years of corruption, greed, and nepotism, the politician was voted out of office.

Correct written grammar and standard punctuation don’t come easily to many of us. Language is always changing, and technology has accelerated the pace of change. I frequently refer to The Bedford Handbook by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers because I’ve taught college writing from it for years. The Elements of Style by Shrunk and White is also excellent.


Dodici Azpadu, MFA, PhD is a novelist, short story writer, and poet. Her fiction publications include: Saturday Night in the Prime of Life and Goat Song (Aunt Lute/Spinsters Ink) and subsequently Onlywoman (London, England). Living Room (2010) and Traces of a Woman (2014), both by Neuma Books, are available as ebooks. She’s currently at work on a novel, tentatively titled Living Lies. 

WearingThePhantomOut100Her poetry publications include Wearing the Phantom Out (2013) and Rumi’s Falcon from Neuma Books. Individual poems have appeared in Malpais Review, Adobe Walls, ContraACultura (online), Parnassus, Sinister Wisdom, Latuca, The Rag, and The Burning Bush. Her work has also been anthologized in Centos: A Collage of Poems and Hey Pasean!
Dodici teaches “The Joy of Poetry” and “Craft of Creating Writing” classes through University of New Mexico’s Osher Lifelong Learning.

This article was originally published in the December 2010 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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