Tag Archives: dangling modifier

The Dangling Modifier

What’s a dangling modifier? “Dangling” means hanging, and a “modifier” is a description. So a “dangling modifier” is a “hanging description,” or a description in the wrong place.

A dangling modifier is usually easy to spot because it sounds ridiculous. Take a look at these examples:

Spattered around the room, Jones photographed the blood.  DANGLING MODIFIER

I spotted broken glass searching for evidence.  DANGLING MODIFIER

I saw a bloody knife walking through the bedroom.  DANGLING MODIFIER

Here are the corrected sentences:

Jones photographed the blood that was spattered around the room. CORRECT

While searching for evidence, I spotted broken glass. CORRECT

Walking through the bedroom, I saw a bloody knife. CORRECT

Sometimes it’s harder to spot a dangling modifier. To most people, this sentence probably looks correct on first reading – but it isn’t:

Questioning inmate Kelly, he said his sister had bought the watch for him.  DANGLING MODIFIER

There are two problems with the sentence. First, Kelly didn’t do the questioning. Second, the sentence doesn’t specify who did. The omission might create a problem in a disciplinary hearing, when it’s important to identify all the parties involved.

Here’s the corrected sentence:

When I questioned inmate Kelly, he said his sister had bought the watch for him. CORRECT

Be careful when you start a sentence with an -ing word: Often it will contain a dangling modifier. If you do start a sentence with an -ing word, reword it to make sure it’s clear who did what.


Procrastination in Writing

Writer’s block. That blank sheet of paper staring you in the face. It’s a student’s worst nightmare: THE RESEARCH PAPER.

This week I’ve been reliving all my procrastination behaviors from my student days: I’ve been putting off a research paper of sorts – a professional writing job that involved collecting, organizing, and commenting on some sources related to Bernard Shaw and feminism.

This is what it’s felt like: Carrying a cement block on my back. Living under a gray cloud. Dealing with a gloomy mood, a frozen brain, and fears that I’ll never get it done, it will be awful, and I’ll have nothing to say.

You’d think that by now – I’ve published six books, along with numerous articles in magazines, journals, and other media – it would get a little easier. Nope.

Worst of all is the guilt. I can’t enjoy anything because the dreaded task is hanging over my head.

Luckily there are strategies for getting out from under. Here’s what worked for me this week:

1.  Jump-starting my brain.

The unconscious mind will do a lot of the organizing and writing without our even knowing it if (and this is a big IF) we give it something to work with. Every day I’ve been reading and taking notes. Result: An unbelievably messy computer document (bad) that’s also an encouraging start to my writing project (good).

2.  Doing a little every day.

Small is Beautiful is the title of a collection of essays by E. F. Schumacher – and a great principle to live by, especially when a dreaded project is looming. If you commit to doing something to move the project forward every day (and, of course, follow through with your resolution), after a while it gets to be a habit, and the momentum is there when you need it.

3.  Doing it badly.

This is counterintuitive advice, but it works. Honest. Commit yourself to producing something awful. What always happens is that I discover a) The task isn’t so terrible after all, once I get myself going and b) I can improve it to make it something I’m proud of.

And that’s exactly what seems to be happening, to my immense relief. Try these tips for overcoming procrastination in writing.  They really work!


Can You Spot These Writing Mistakes?

The Galloping Grammarian is at it again!

Here are two sentences with writing mistakes I came across recently.  The errors should have been corrected before they were published. Can you identify the problems?

The first is from a news story about Ines Sainz, the sports reporter who claims she was treated badly during a locker room interview:

Yes, she wears low-cut shirts, tight jeans and has photos on her employer’s website showing her in a bikini.

The second is from a literature blog:

A central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) was the first novel by a black author to make the best-seller lists.

Here are the answers:

The first sentence isn’t parallel. You can easily see the problem when the sentence is written like a three-part poem:

Yes, she wears

low-cut shirts

tight jeans and

has photos on her employer’s website showing her in a bikini.

Remember that parallelism errors are about lists, and the mistake almost always shows up in the third item. Here’s one way to correct the sentence:

Yes, she wears low-cut shirts and tight jeans, and she has photos on her employer’s website showing her in a bikini.  CORRECT

The second sentence is a dangling modifier. McKay’s Home to Harlem is a book, not a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. That “central figure” was McKay himself.

Here’s one way to correct it:

McKay, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, wrote Home to Harlem in 1928. It was the first novel by a black author to make the best-seller lists. CORRECT

It’s often a good idea to write two shorter sentences, as I did here, rather than a long one. Cramming a lot of information into one long sentence often leads to errors.

Are you still confused about the dangling modifier? Let’s look at another one:

After filling the tank and changing the oil, Jill’s car was ready for the trip.  DANGLING MODIFIER

Jill’s car didn’t fill its gas tank and change the oil! Jill had to take care of those tasks herself. (Wouldn’t it be nice if cars did their own maintenance? Sorry – it doesn’t work what way.)

Here’s the corrected sentence:

After Jill filled the tank and changed the oil, her car was ready for the trip. CORRECT