A modifier does exactly what it sounds like: it changes, alters, limits, or adds more info to something else in the sentence. A modifier is considered dangling when the sentence isn't clear about what is being modified. For example, "The big" doesn't make sense without telling what is big which leaves "big" as a dangling modifier; but, "the big dog" is a complete phrase.
A modifier modifies or provides more information. In grammar, adverbs and adjectives are both modifiers. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. For example:
The very happy boy ran.
In this sentence, the adjective "happy" modifies the noun "boy," and the adverb "very" modifies the adjective "happy."
Similarly, consider this sentence:
The boy ran very quickly.
Here, the adverb "quickly" modifies the verb "ran," and the adverb "very" modifies the adverb "quickly."
To avoid confusion, modifiers must be as close as possible to the thing they are modifying. For example, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to say, "The very quickly boy ran," since "very quickly" is not modifying or describing "boy."
Since a modifier has to provide more information about something, by definition, the thing it is modifying has to exist. That means that you can't just say, "The happy." If you did, people would immediately ask you, "The happy what?" That missing "what" is the thing being modified.
It seems pretty obvious and intuitive when written in a simple sentence, and it seems hard to imagine a situation in which a modifier would be left dangling, without a thing to modify. However, modifiers don't always have to be simple words or phrases like "happy," and sentences aren't always simple.
Phrases can also act as modifiers, providing additional information about something else in the sentence. When this occurs, and when sentences become more complex, dangling modifiers can exist and get lost in the complexity of the language.
Here follow several examples of dangling modifiers and how to fix them.
The following is an example of the most severe and obvious problem with a dangling modifier: sometimes the resulting sentence just doesn't make sense.
Hoping to garner favor, my parents were sadly unimpressed with the gift.
Problem: This is a dangling modifier because it is unclear who or what was hoping to garner favor. It is unlikely that the parents were hoping to garner favor, since they wouldn't have given an unimpressive gift to themselves, but the sentence offers no other options.
Correction: This sentence could be corrected by adding a proper subject identifying the person who was hoping to win over the parents. For example:
Hoping to garner favor, my new boyfriend brought my parents a gift that sadly failed to impress them.
Now, the modifier is no longer dangling, since the subject - in this case, the boyfriend - is clearly identified.
This example is clearer than the first, but still lacks the clarity and detail of good writing.
Hoping to excuse my lateness, the note was written and given to my teacher.
Problem: Here, it seems as though we have a subject: "my lateness." However, "my lateness" is part of the modifier, rather than being part of the subject itself.
Correction: We need a subject that is modified by "hoping to excuse my lateness," since obviously the note itself didn't have any hopes, because it's a note.
Hoping to excuse my lateness, I wrote a note and gave it to my teacher.
Now, the problem is resolved. I am the person who is hoping to excuse my lateness, so I wrote a note and gave it to my teacher. My note may not get me out of trouble, but at least I won't have bad grammar too!
Here, some relevant information is implied rather than being explicitly stated. Being explicit makes writing clearer and easier to understand.
After reading the great new book, the movie based on it is sure to be exciting.
Problem: Again, we are left wondering exactly who read the great new book. The phrase can't possibly be modifying the movie, since the movie can't read.
Correction: A subject must be added so the modifier has something to describe, change or limit.
After reading the great new book, Anna thought the movie based on it was sure to be exciting.
Remember, a modifier, whether word or phrase, must be as close to the subject it modifies as possible
In some situations, a dangling modifier can render a whole sentence meaningless.
Stuck standing in line, the elevator was keeping people from getting to the party.
Problem: Elevators can't stand in line. Logically, it's "people" who are stuck standing in line, but with the way this sentence is structured, grammatically that phrase must refer to "the elevator," making the sentence nonsensical.
Correction: Rearranging the sentence resolves all confusion.
Stuck standing in line for the elevator, people were getting impatient to get to the party.
Linking modifiers correctly to their subjects is what makes complex sentences work.
A dangling modifier isn't always a whole phrase. Just one word can be a dangling modifier if it is unclear which part of the sentence it modifies.
Unbeaten, the regular season championship belonged to the Wildcats.
Problem: "Unbeaten" is left dangling here, apparently modifying a phrase to which it doesn't apply.
Correction: Reordering the sentence makes a clear result.
Unbeaten, the Wildcats claimed the regular season championship.
Whether a word or a whole phrase, a dangling modifier can confuse meaning and complicate writing.
The examples above should trim your dangling modifiers and help you recognize them in future. For more help on a similar subject, try our misplaced modifier article. Happy writing!