Rhetoric and Composition/Dangling modifier

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What Is a Dangling Modifier?[edit]

A common way to save words and combine ideas is by starting a sentence with a phrase that provides additional information about an element in the sentence without having to make a whole separate sentence to say it. In the following example, notice how three choppy sentences condense into one smoother sentence with the use of such an opening phrase, which is called a modifier:

  • Original: The Student Council exists to represent students to the faculty and administration. It also oversees student organizations. The Student Council plays an important role in campus life.
  • Rewrite: Responsible for representing students to the faculty and administration and overseeing student organizations, the Student Council plays an important role in campus life.

Here are some other examples of sentences that begin with a phrase providing this sort of additional information:

  • An example of bottom of the pyramid targeting, microcredit ventures lend small amounts of money to those with minimal assets.
  • Found in tropical southern Asia, the Asian Koel belongs to the cuckoo order of birds.
  • After completing the experiment, the most bacteria appeared in the scraping taken from the drinking fountain.

Notice something odd about the last one? The modifier -- "After completing the experiment" -- doesn't match what follows it: The bacteria didn't complete the experiment (presumably, a researcher did)! The rule for using modifiers at the beginning of a sentence is that the thing being modified must immediately follow the modifier. Sometimes this requires you to rearrange the sentence; other times you have to "spell out" what is being modified if you didn't include it.

Examples[edit]

  • Dangling modifier: Covering most of Minnesota, the illustration showed the glacier that left the state with its thousands of lakes.
  • Corrected: Covering most of Minnesota, the glacier left the state with its thousands of lakes, as depicted on the illustration.
  • Dangling modifier: Trekking across the desert, fierce winds swirled around the riders.
  • Corrected: Trekking across the desert, the riders were assaulted by fierce winds.
  • Dangling modifier: First coined in 1980, historian Linda Kerber used the term "republican motherhood" to describe a phenomenon occurring after the Revolutionary War in which women were encouraged to promote the ideals of liberty and democracy to their children.
  • Corrected: First coined in 1980, the term "republican motherhood" was used by historian Linda Kerber to describe a phenomenon occurring after the Revolutionary War in which women were encouraged to promote the ideals of liberty and democracy to their children.

What Is a Misplaced Modifier?[edit]

Whereas a dangling modifier is "left hanging," so to speak, with its referent missing in action, a misplaced modifier's referent is present and accounted for, but as its name implies, the modifier itself is out of place within the sentence, such that it seems to modify another referent in the sentence, resulting in ambiguity or confusion.

Examples[edit]

  • Misplaced: Erik couldn't ride his bicycle with a broken leg.
  • Misplaced: The little girl walked the dog wearing a tutu.
  • Misplaced: Just don't stand there.
  • Correct: With his broken leg, Erik couldn't ride his bicycle
  • Correct: Still wearing a tutu, the little girl walked the dog.
  • Correct: Don't just stand there.

What Is a Squinting Modifier?[edit]

Unlike a dangling modifier or a misplaced modifier, a squinting modifier is placed right next to the word it refers to, but it is also near another word that it might be modifying, which can cause confusion.

Examples[edit]

  • Squinting: Cycling uphill quickly strengthens the leg muscles.
  • Correct: Quickly cycling uphill strengthens the leg muscles.

Or

  • Correct: Cycling uphill can quickly strengthen the leg muscles.


  • Squinting: Using modifiers clearly will improve your writing.
  • Correct: Clearly using modifiers will improve your writing.

Or

  • Correct: Using modifiers will clearly improve your writing.