Dang those modifiers!


April 1, 2013 by bradcharlesbeals

Dangling modifiers are common in even the most carefully proofed copy. These are hard to catch because they don’t LOOK like errors and at a glance they don’t break intuitive grammar logic.

Having read countless books on the subject, the research paper seemed to write itself.

It’s clear what the speaker means to say here, that she had an easy time with the paper because she read a lot. But the sentence actually says that the research paper read countless books. In English, when a sentence begins with an adjective phrase, it modifies the noun or pronoun following it. As in Exhausted, he sought shelter. Exhausted must decribe what follows it—he.

But what follows the adjective phrase in our example? The research paper. Yes, it’s a noun, but it’s not the noun that read countless books. In fact, there’s no one in the sentence who could have read countless books; thus we call the error a dangling modifier.

Here’s a similar problem:

Undaunted by the storm, the torn sails were quickly repaired by the expert crew.

Again we have an introductory adjective phrase, so the thing following it should be whatever or whoever was undaunted. But clearly the torn sails were not undaunted, the crew was. We call this error a misplaced modifier.


Because these sentences intuit a clear meaning, the errors can be hard to catch. Here’s how: look for the comma. When you have intro adjective phrases like these, it’s usual practice whether you know what you’re doing or not to put in a comma at the pause. So if you’re doing that, just look to see what comes after the comma. Is it being described by that opening phrase? If so, great. If not, re-work it.

One thought on “Dang those modifiers!

  1. loiswstern says:

    HOW DOES THIS SOUND? “Having read countless books on the subject, I was able to write my research paper so easily, it seemed to write itself.”

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