This week my class took on a great grammar offender: the dangling modifier. Two disruptive modifiers we’ve all used incorrectly, the dangling modifier and dangling participle, interrupt the connections between parts of a sentence, making it confusing for readers to follow the thought.
At first, the concept of dangling modifiers seemed easy. The students were quick to define “dangling” – we’re familiar with dangling earrings, dangling uvulas and even dangling chads. Defining “modifier” proved trickier, and the dictionary and grammar workbooks were sourced. “Modifiers should clearly refer to the words they modify” and they must be positioned close to those words. This circular definition was met with blank stares, so we dove into examples.A sentence may look like it makes sense but some phrases don’t modify anything in the sentence or they modify something incorrectly; therein lies the confusion. For example,
As a young boy, his grandmother told stories of her years as a migrant worker.
This can’t be right. The grandmother was once a young boy? Of course not. There’s a disconnect so the sentence needs a subject to which the modifier clearly refers so the thought process flows uninterrupted.
When he was a young boy, his grandmother told stories of her years as a migrant worker.
Ah, now it’s clear! “As a young boy” now modifies “he.” It’s logical the grandmother told stories to the boy about her own youth. We don’t have to spend time figuring out how she might have been a young male migrant worker. Unobstructed, the reader can continue with the story.
When working with dangling participles – “when using an –ing verb”— you need to be explicit about who is doing the action.
Walking down the street, the Empire State building came into view.
Oh boy. This sentence has a serious problem. There is no way the Empire State building can walk down the street and into view unless it’s a Transformer in a Michael Bay movie. To make this sentence clear, try a simple edit:
While walking down the street, I saw the Empire State building.
Ah, much better. It’s okay to rewrite the sentence.
When I introduced the dangling modifier and dangling participle, most of my students kept their eyes focused on their workbooks, fearful of making eye contact as they frantically scanned their guides to figure out the answer. After we worked through several examples, however, they began to call out the answers with confidence. They were having fun with it and could see how a sentence could be confusing with a dangling modifier. It’s rewarding to witness the “a-ha” moments. My students’ next challenge is to review their previous assignments and correct any of these inconsistencies.
As with most everything in grammar and editing, recognizing dangling modifiers and participles takes awareness and practice. Because I majored in English, most people assume I’m a grammar genius. That’s far from the truth. Writing is my passion and, just like any other trade or skill, I constantly hone and practice it in order to produce a clear and clean sentence.
Besides, who likes to have anything dangling?