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Don't get caught with your modifiers dangling

We often don’t notice dangling or misplaced modifiers in speech, but they can unintentionally create some really funny images.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan was thinking about the grammar lessons she learned as a kid, and misplaced and dangling modifiers stuck in her head.

“In the grammar book that I had – this must have been junior high, late elementary school – there was this sentence: ‘Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.’”

“When we stop, we can see what the problem is, which is ‘clinging to the side of the aquarium,’ which is right next to Mary. Clearly, it is supposed to modify that it was the starfish clinging to the side of the aquarium. But given the way the sentence was constructed, the modifier – which should modify what comes right next to it –  seems to be modifying poor Mary, who is now clinging to the side of the aquarium," Curzan explains.

So that is a misplaced modifier, because the thing it is supposed to modify is in the sentence, just in the wrong place.

"We then have dangling modifiers, and I’m just going to talk about these ing participles, when we talk about modifiers. And a dangling one is one where what it’s modifying doesn’t even show up in the sentence."

Here's an example:

"Glancing through the document, the typos jumped off the page."

"It's funny, and you think, 'Oh, those typos as they glance through that document.' What we’re referring to is probably the speaker: ‘Glancing through the document, I found the typos to be doing whatever they were doing. But the I isn’t even in the sentence anywhere, so that participial phrase ‘glancing through the document’ is dangling. It has nothing to modify it," Curzan says.

Here's another dangler: "Flipping over the rock, the spider leapt onto my foot."

And here's a misplaced modifier Curzan saw in a student essay:"‘As a college writing instructor, students have shared with me their anxieties about writing."

"So there you don’t have the ing form, but the students aren’t the college writing instructor, I’m the college writing instructor. But, I think what you notice here is that if you just heard that sentence, you would know exactly what it meant," she says."

"While we get a lot of rules about misplaced and dangling modifiers – and they can be really funny when you step back and think about them – when we are in speech, we tend not to notice them," Curzan says.

"In writing we need to be more careful, because if there’s ambiguity, and someone thinks maybe Mary is clinging to the side of the aquarium, you’re not there to clarify, so there’s a good reason not to misplace or dangling your modifiers when you’re writing as opposed to in speech."   

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.