An Ent. Image courtesy of user vladeb on flickr.
A dangling modifier is a grammatical construction in which a modifying word or phrase is placed at too great a distance from the word or phrase it aims to modify, resulting in a lack of clarity or, in some cases, hilarity. An example from the Wikipedia article:
Walking down the street, the trees were beautiful.
The “walking down the street” here is intended to modify (or describe) the person who is expressing the opinion that the trees were beautiful, but since that person makes no appearance within the sentence, the grammar of the sentence is such that the phrase applies to the trees. And we all know that outside of certain fantasy fiction, trees do not walk.
To clarify this sentence, we might rewrite it as follows:
Walking down the street, I thought the trees were beautiful.
Here we’ve added the subject “I” right next to the modifier “walking down the street” so that it’s clear which subject the modifier belongs to.
After being beaten to a froth, the cook poured the egg into the pan.
Because that opening clause appears right next to the subject “the cook,” it is understood to modify that subject rather than the intended noun “the egg,” resulting no doubt in a very unhappy cook. We might correct as follows:
After beating the egg to a froth, the cook poured it into the pan.
The cook poured the egg, beaten to a froth, into the pan.
In both cases, we’re putting that “beaten” clause closer to the egg so that there’s no ambiguity about which noun we intend the phrase to describe.
I suspect that the dangling modifier is often introduced when people are rewriting to correct other problems. For example, I could imagine someone writing the following sentence:
After being beaten to a froth, the egg was poured into the pan.
It’s a perfectly good sentence, with the modifier placed correctly so that it’s clear that it applies to the egg. But it’s written in the passive voice. So then the author might try to fix the passive voice issue by introducing the cook as a subject — a noble enough enterprise, but one half undertaken in this case, since any time you change the subject of a sentence, you have to check all the other moving parts of the sentence as well.
If you search the web for “dangling modifier” or “dangling participle,” you can find all sorts of funny examples of the error. Have you run across any especially funny instances of it?