Section 7: Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

dangling modifier is a modifier that does not refer clearly to what it modifies. Dangling modifiers include dangling participles and dangling infinitives.

To use a nonfinite verb phrase as a modifier, you can only delete the subject of the nonfinite verb if it is the same as the subject of the verb in the main clause. Here are some obvious examples:

  • Unable to start my car, my dog never arrived at the vet's office.
  • While mixing the martinis, the olives spilled all over the floor.
  • Fully loaded, I can't carry the suitcase.

To fix dangling modifiers, either rearrange the main clause so that its subject is the same as the deleted subject, or supply the subject for the dangling verb form.

  • Unable to start my car, I never arrived at the vet's office with my dog.
  • While mixing the martinis, I spilled the olives all over the floor.
  • When the suitcase is fully loaded, I can't carry it.

misplaced modifier is a modifier so positioned that it is difficult to decide what it modifies.

Since nonfinite verb phrases and prepositional phrases can move around in a sentence, there is the potential for modifying more than one constituent. For example:

  • They will rebuild the houses destroyed with stricter standards.
  • Mildred went shopping for a dog with a friend.

Fixing the problem is not always easy because simply moving the phrase around in the sentence oftentimes produces awkward alternatives:

  • They will rebuild with stricter standards the houses destroyed.

To fix misplaced modifiers, revise the sentence to clarify which constituent the modifier refers to. If necessary, change the form of the modifier (e.g. change a prepositional phrase into a participle phrase, or a present-participle phrase into a relative clause).

  • Using stricter standards, they will rebuild the destroyed houses.
  • Mildred and a friend went shopping for a dog.

In conclusion, remember that a misplaced modifier means that the referent is present in the sentence but the modifier is in the wrong place because it is not close enough to the referent to make sense. A dangling modifier means that the referent is not even present in the sentence. This is an important distinction to be able to make.