Dangling modifiers and how to fix them

A modifier describes or qualifies another part of a sentence. A dangling modifier occurs when the intended subject of the modifier is missing from the sentence, and instead another subject appears in its place.

Dangling modifiers often take the form of an introductory phrase that is connected to the wrong thing.

DanglingCorrected
  • Fumbling in her purse, the keys could not be found.
  • Fumbling in her purse, she could not find the keys.
  • As she fumbled in her purse, the keys could not be found.

Recognizing dangling modifiers

In a correct sentence, the subject (or doer) that is modified should immediately follow the comma after the modifier. In the example below, the introductory phrase modifies Jane, the subject of the main clause.

  • While driving to work, Jane witnessed a car accident on the highway.

When a sentence does not clearly state the subject being modified, the introductory phrase becomes a dangling modifier. Often this error is a result of a main clause written in the passive voice.

  • While driving to work, a car accident was witnessed on the highway.

In this sentence, the intended target of the modifier, Jane, is missing. Because a car accident appears where the subject should be, the sentence now suggests that a car accident was driving to work. This is an example of how dangling modifiers can result in nonsensical sentences.

How to fix a dangling modifier

There are two simple ways to fix a dangling modifier.

Method 1: Revise the main clause

One method of fixing a dangling modifier is to leave the modifier as it is and rewrite the main clause so that it begins with the subject being modified.

  • Having injured his dominant hand, it was difficult to write the exam.
  • Having injured his dominant hand, John had difficulty writing the exam.

In the example above, the first sentence fails to clarify whose hand was injured – it does not state the subject of the introductory modifier phrase. In the corrected sentence, the subject, John, appears immediately after the modifier phrase.

  • Dangling
  • Corrected
Hungry after two hours of hiking, my packed sandwich was quickly devoured upon reaching the peak.Hungry after two hours of hiking, I quickly devoured my packed sandwich upon reaching the peak.
Smiling from ear to ear, the candles are blown out, and the novel concludes happily.Smiling from ear to ear, the heroine blows out the candles, and the novel concludes happily.
To become a practicing dentist, many teeth must be cleaned, filled, and filed.To become a practicing dentist, you must clean, fill, and file many teeth.

Method 2: Revise the modifier phrase

Another method of fixing a dangling modifier is to include the subject in the introductory phrase, leaving the main clause as it is.

  • Having injured his dominant hand, it was difficult to write the exam.
  • Because John had injured his dominant hand, it was difficult to write the exam.

In the corrected sentence, the dangling modifier is replaced with a complete clause that clearly states the subject who is doing the action.

  • Dangling
  • Corrected
While driving to work, a car accident caused a traffic jam on the highway.While Jane was driving to work, a car accident caused a traffic jam on the highway.
Requiring more data for the study, questionnaires were collected from an additional 200 people.Because we required more data for the study, questionnaires were collected from an additional 200 people.
Taken down to the cellar, the darkness obscured the details of the room.As he was taken down to the cellar, the darkness obscured the details of the room.
Is this article helpful?
Amy Luo

Amy has a master’s degree in History of Art and has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2014. She is passionate about helping people communicate clearly and effectively.

Comment or ask a question.