Search icon Looking for something?

Dangling for Position
2006, Q2 (July 16, 2013)
By Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

What's wrong with this sentence?
Throw the dog across the street a bone.

The phrase across the street appears to modify throw instead of dog. Why? The placement of the prepositional phrase interrupts the natural flow of the sentence. It falls between the indirect object, dog, and the direct object, bone. So dog appears to be the direct object, and the entire sentence unravels.

To correct the problem, you could rewrite the sentence as follows:
Throw a bone to the dog across the street.

Here’s another type of dangler:
Riding my bicycle, a dog barked ferociously.

Beware of bicycle-riding dogs. The pronoun that this participial phrase is intended to modify, I, doesn’t appear in the sentence.

Danglers can be humorous for the reader, but humiliating for the writer. They're insidious, creeping into our prose and undermining our sentence structure. But they’re easy to find if you know what to look for.

Dangling Modifiers

Adjectives and adjectival phrases attach themselves to the nearest noun. Adverbs and adverbial phrases attach themselves to the nearest verb, adjective, or adverb. Dangling modifiers occur when a word or phrase either has no word in the sentence to modify or seems to modify the wrong word.


The most common error of this sort is the dangling participle. The sentence begins with a participial phrase, but the phrase doesn’t modify the grammatical subject of the sentence:

Driving to work this morning, the fog was intense.

The fog obviously didn’t do the driving. Some possible fixes are:
  • While I drove to work this morning, the fog was intense. (Change the participial phrase to a subordinate clause.)
  • Driving to work this morning, I found the fog intense. (Recast the sentence to place the appropriate subject at the beginning of the main clause.)

Danglers are particularly difficult to spot when the main clause begins with a possessive:
Being a fastidious man, Leonard’s ties are neatly pressed.

Leonard’s ties are not a fastidious man. (In this case, to eliminate the dangler, I’d remove the participial phrase altogether. It doesn’t enhance the meaning of the sentence.)

Dangling participles often appear when the main clause begins with it is or there are:
Analyzing the data, it’s clear that the new software didn’t increase productivity.

Recasting the sentence to remove it’s both eliminates the dangler and results in a stronger subject and verb:
The data proves that the new software didn’t increase productivity.


Infinitive phrases are also commonly left dangling. For example:
To apply the new configuration, power must be recycled.

An infinitive phrase must modify the noun performing the action. To correct the problem, change the sentence to active voice:
To apply the new configuration, you must recycle power.

Or better yet, use the imperative:
''To apply the new configuration, recycle power.


When comparing objects, make sure they’re comparable, or you may end up with a dangler:
  • Like my sister Jennifer, Yorkshire terriers are one of Gloria’s favorite dog breeds. (Are you calling my sister a dog?)
  • Unlike Jennifer, Gloria’s Yorkie barks incessantly. (Jennifer hardly ever barks.)

Place the prepositional phrase so it attaches to the word it modifies, and make sure the objects compared are parallel:
  • Like my sister Jennifer, Gloria considers Yorkshire terriers one of her favorite dog breeds.
  • Unlike Jennifer’s Yorkie, Gloria’s barks incessantly.


Also watch for danglers when beginning a sentence with an appositive:
An avid collector of plants, the pink lady’s slipper was Leonard’s prized possession.

Recast the sentence so that the noun phrase refers to the subject:
An avid collector of plants, Leonard prized his pink lady’s slipper.

Acceptable Danglers

Some dangling participles have come into acceptance through long use as participial prepositions or subordinating conjunctions. These include according, assuming, barring, concerning, considering, during, judging, notwithstanding, owing to, provided, regarding, respecting, speaking, and taking.1
  • Assuming it doesn’t rain, the garden tour begins at 3 p.m.
  • Taking into account the rising cost of fuel, the price increase of retail goods is understandable.

It’s also become acceptable to use a participial phrase at the end of a sentence to modify the subject, even if the phrase immediately follows the direct object:
I entered the room, searching for my husband.

In this case, searching functions as a coordinating participle; it replaces and searched. The participle adds immediacy without reducing clarity, since obviously the room isn’t searching for my husband.

But what if the sentence read,
I found Gloria, searching for my husband.

Am I searching for my husband, or is Gloria?

Squinting Modifiers

A squinting modifier occurs when the placement of a word or phrase creates ambiguity about which part of the sentence it modifies. Simple changes to the above example make the meaning clear:
I found Gloria searching for my husband. Searching for my husband, I found Gloria.

Here’s another example:
Leonard said on Tuesday he’s flying to Las Vegas.

Move the troublesome prepositional phrase to clarify the meaning:
On Tuesday, Leonard said he’s flying to Las Vegas. Leonard said he’s flying to Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Another option is to insert the word that as a subordinating conjunction:
Leonard said on Tuesday that he’s flying to Las Vegas. Leonard said that on Tuesday, he’s flying to Las Vegas.

As The Chicago Manual of Style reminds us, it’s acceptable to omit that only if the meaning is clear without it.

Misplaced Modifiers

The placement of an adjective or adverb affects the meaning of a sentence. Only, for example, is a versatile little word that can modify almost anything:
  • I only lent the necklace to Jennifer. (I didn’t give it to her.)
  • I lent only the necklace to Jennifer. (I didn’t lend her the matching earrings.)
  • I lent the necklace to only Jennifer. (She wasn’t supposed to let anyone else wear it.)

So in technical writing, the sentence Only use copper wire should read, Use only copper wire. (Only modifies copper, not use.) The sentence, Only install the filter in high-noise environments should read, Install the filter only in high-noise environments.

Most misplaced modifiers appear at the beginning of the sentence. For example:
Young and frisky, Leonard can barely keep up with his new cocker spaniel. Astonishingly, Leonard introduced the cocker spaniel to his cat, and the old feline accepted the puppy right away.

Leonard isn’t the one who’s young and frisky, and it’s not astonishing that he introduced his puppy to his cat.

However, some adverbs (called sentence adverbs) can be placed at the beginning of the sentence to modify the entire thing rather than a single element in it. These include basically, clearly, frankly, happily, honestly, hopefully, regrettably, sadly, and seriously.2

(Can you imagine if Rhett Butler’s parting words to Scarlett O’Hara had been, “My dear, I frankly don’t give a damn”?) Some grammarians object to the inclusion of hopefully in this list, but they’re fighting a losing battle. The use of hopefully as a sentence adverb is ubiquitous.

Spotting danglers becomes easier with practice. Like passive voice, danglers create a jarring sense that the words don’t appear in the expected order. If a sentence doesn’t feel right, a dangler may be the culprit. Root it out to create tighter, more powerful prose.

Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

1. The University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition), and Bryan A. Garner, Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998 edition).
2. Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax, and Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe is I

More articles like this...
Comments powered by Disqus.