Dangle all the way

When I think of dangling modifiers, I picture a hapless trapeze artist who has misjudged her jump and now finds herself dangling helplessly from the roof of the big top. Therefore, I’m going to explain this common grammar mistake using circus-themed examples. Drum roll, please!

What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies (that is, changes the meaning of) a noun or noun phrase. A modifier gives extra information but is not crucial to the grammatical sense of the sentence – if it were deleted, the sentence would still be technically correct.

Modifiers come in all shapes and sizes. For example, here’s the beginning of “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” by the Beatles:

For the benefit of Mr Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanques’ fair, what a scene

Over men and horses hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire
In this way Mr K will challenge the world

Like almost all bits of writing, this song is packed with modifiers. There are adjectives such as real and adverbs such as lastly. There are also phrases such as For the benefit of Mr Kite, which modifies a show, and Late of Pablo Fanques’ fair, which modifies The Hendersons. If you were to remove all the modifiers, it would read something like this:

There will be a show
The Hendersons will be there
What a scene
Mr K will challenge the world

How can a modifier dangle?

Modifiers, just like trapeze artists, need something to hold on to. In general, a modifier will attach itself to the nearest noun, regardless of whether that was the writer’s intention. When a modifier seems to modify the wrong word, or modifies nothing at all, it is dangling. Here’s an example:

After visiting the circus, a trip to the ice cream parlour seemed like the perfect end to the evening.

Here, the modifier is After visiting the circus. Obviously, it is meant to apply to a group of people, but those people are nowhere to be found in the sentence. As a result, the modifier seems to apply to the noun phrase a trip to the ice cream parlour – but that makes no sense because a trip to the ice cream parlour can’t visit the circus. We could fix this sentence by rewording it:

After visiting the circus, we thought a trip to the ice cream parlour would be the perfect end to the evening.

Now, the modifier obviously applies to we, which makes perfect sense.

Dangling participles

The most common type of dangling modifier is the dangling participle. “Participle” refers to a particular verb form – the one we use when a verb is acting as a modifier. Present participles end in ­-ing (dancing bear), and past participles usually end in -ed (roasted peanuts). Participles are frequently used at the beginning of sentences:

Trembling with fear, the tightrope walker took her first step.

Twirling his moustache, the ringleader promised us an amazing spectacle.

Applauding, I decided this was the best circus I had ever seen.

There is a particular rule that applies to these situations: When a participle falls at the beginning of a sentence, it must relate to the sentence’s subject. The above examples all follow this rule. Trembling with fear modifies the tightrope walker, Twirling his moustache modifies the ringleader and Applauding modifies I.

However, all too often a writer will plonk a participle down at the start of a sentence and then fail to provide an appropriate subject for it to modify. Here’s an example:

Walking into the tent, the circus was obviously a top-notch production.

Walking into the tent relates to an invisible subject, the narrator. Since that narrator is nowhere to be seen, the modifier attaches to the sentence’s actual subject, the circus. Suddenly, the circus itself is somehow walking into a tent. A better way to phrase it would be this:

Walking into the tent, I could see the circus was a top-notch production.

Here’s another example:

Dressed in extravagant costumes, the kids in the audience loved the clowns.

The modifier, Dressed in extravagant costumes, is supposed to apply to the clowns. But the clowns is the object of the sentence, not the subject – the subject is the kids. So we’re left with the image of a group of kids in extravagant costumes, all watching the clown show. We could un-dangle that modifier by changing the sentence to something like this:

The kids in the audience loved the clowns, who were dressed in extravagant costumes.

In a nutshell

Modifiers change the meaning of a noun or noun phrase. When it is unclear what they modify, or when they seem to modify the wrong thing, we say they are “dangling”. When a participle (a verb ending in -ing or -ed) begins a sentence, it must modify the subject of that sentence, or else it is dangling.