Steel yourself. We’re going to revisit a fuzzy topic from English class: the “dangling modifier.” Oh, yeah. Now what was that all about?
The principle – simpler than you might think – is merely that we need to correct any modifiers that are misplaced in a sentence. Let’s practice.
The classic: The dangling participle
What’s wrong with this sentence?
Listening to Leslie’s report, an idea popped into my head for a great sponsorship opportunity at the fall conference.
“Listening to Leslie’s report” is a “participial phrase” because it starts with a participle (-ing verb), “listening.” Now, who was doing the listening? The writer of the sentence. But what does the sentence say? It says an idea was listening. As far as I know, ideas can’t listen; people do.
So what word must follow the comma after the opening phrase? Aha, “I.” The easy fix is something like this: Listening to Leslie’s report, I suddenly got an idea for a great sponsorship opportunity at the fall conference.
(If you remember the term “dangling participle” from school better than “dangling modifier,” just know that “dangling modifier” labels the overall problem and “dangling participle” is the type of dangling modifier that starts with an -ing verb, a participle.)
Now that it’s all coming back to you, let’s tackle another: Trying to master the hula hoop, I snapped a great picture of my granddaughter.
See what’s amiss? Most likely I didn’t take the picture while hula-ing. And here we can do the repair by just rearranging the two parts of the sentence so “granddaughter” is adjacent to “trying”: I snapped a great picture of my granddaughter trying to master the hula hoop.
Although taking a second look at participles in the editing process is a fine way to start catching dangling modifiers, we need to be aware that not every dangling modifier starts with an -ing word. For example, they often start with “As”:
As one of Kids Korner’s most valued volunteers, I am delighted to invite you to serve on our Board of Trustees.
Uh-oh. Who is the valued volunteer? The recipient of the letter or the braggy writer? We know what was intended, but that’s not what was said. This is better: As one of Kids Korner’s most valued volunteers, you are invited to serve on our Board of Trustees. Or this: I am delighted to invite you, as one of Kids Korner’s most valued volunteers, to serve on our Board of Trustees.
How about this one? Perched on a crest overlooking Fowler Falls, you are sure to love the scenic Manchester Inn.
Doubting that the recipient of this letter is perched on a crest, I might write this instead: You are sure to love the scenic Manchester Inn, perched on a crest overlooking Fowler Falls.
Be aware that dangling modifiers don’t always appear at the end of the sentence. For example: Our 8:30 meeting on Friday has been expanded to 90 minutes, realizing that we now have two additional issues to discuss.
Who is doing the realizing? The “I” is omitted, but we can easily work it in: Realizing that we now have two additional issues to discuss, I have expanded our 8:30 meeting on Friday to 90 minutes.
As you can see, fixing dangling modifiers is simple. The trick is recognizing them.
In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.