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If a Tree Uses a Dangling Modifier and Nobody Hears It…

Image courtesy of user vladeb on flickr.

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.

Another example:

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.

Or:

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?

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  1. I was mentally preparing a comment that the author’s use of the passive voice was a major culprit affecting the clarity of the second example, but then I read on.

    **sigh**

    Thanks for being fabulous. Grammar is important.

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  2. I don’t know anyone who has never been in a situation where they were misunderstood. Both the person speaking and the person listening need to understand the rules of the language for communication to be clear. One nice thing about writing is that there is time to
    organize your thoughts.

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    1. It’s true enough that in most cases, between reader and writer, you can work out the intended meaning even if the syntax is a little garbled. But one of the underlying premises I’m working with in writing these articles is that we’re all trying to write as clearly as possible, and this particular issue can be a minor roadbump (at least if you have grammar nerds among your readers) and so seems to me worth thinking about.

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  3. I thought your post was interesting. I like to use Chicago Manual of Style and Associate Press (AP) style. Another site besides Wikipedia for reference, is http://www.grammar_monster.com

    Example: As soon as the cake is golden-brown, take it out of the oven.

    In this sentence there is no “I” or “you” and it is grammatically correct.

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    1. This example is a little different, in that the first clause there isn’t modifying anything in the second. It’s not a dangling modifier but is merely a subordinate clause introducing sequence of events to the sentence. But try this one:

      Golden brown, he took the cake out of the oven.

      In that case, it’s unclear whether it’s the cake or the person who’s golden brown, and the syntax of the sentence suggests that it is the perso who is golden brown (which is entirely possible, of course, but not, in such a sentence, the probable meaning).

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      1. You have just cracked me up!! I have this wonderful image of a golden brown surfer, taking his golden brown cake out of the own while listening to golden brown by the stranglers ๐Ÿ˜€

        But to be serious, nice explanation of the difference in sentence construction in all the examples. Modifying is a good topic to choose, not sure how much I remember tbh.

        I think my only saving graces on my blogs may be that I tend to write ‘The cat sat on the mat’ to avoid getting caught out.

        Incidentally, turning the cake sentence around, could make it clearer, and .. well anyway, that’s not the point of this topic ๐Ÿ˜€

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  4. I LOVE your stuff – love it!
    I was trying (TRYING) to teach all of this at our local university until my husband got too sick and I had to more or less quit.

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    1. For nearly a year now, I’ve brought just such a thing to Daily Post (sometimes it’s not strictly grammar, but usually at least tangentially related to contemplating/improving writing). You can browse my articles here. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      1. Well, I just subscribed, so I’ve missed out! But, I was grateful to see this post pop up and to know that someone in the blogosphere does still care about the “elements of style,” shall we say. ๐Ÿ˜‰ So, Good For You!

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  5. This reminds me of my SAT coaching..my teacher would always scold me for missing out on the dangling modifiers..it was really unusual that I was able to spot them easily while correcting sentences but my own essays would be filled with them! The best way to avoid dangling modifiers is to use precise and crisp language..the mantra of keeping it short and simple does wonders!

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  6. As always I enjoy reading your post. Thanks for responding to my comment Daryl. I wanted to share an examples of sentences without nouns, which sort of goes along with watching out for dangling modifiers. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Chinese is a language which doesn’t always require a subject. The subject or personal pronouns are to be sensed, not necessarily grammatically required. That’s why ‘Walking down the streets’ example could be valid in Chinese.

    That’s why Chinese learners of English could easily make this ‘dangling modifier’ mistake you mentioned.

    You could have a very long sentence in Chinese, without a clear subject, yet it could still be understood.

    It makes learning a new language fascinating. We learn the grammar, style, logic and the way of thinking of the native speakers.

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  8. My favorite go-to one, that I still remember from my high school English text book 40 years later: “Coming across the campus, the library met my gaze.” Love your prose Daryl.

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  9. Here are a couple I’ve actually come across while editing a user guide:

    1. By being Energy Starยฎ compliant you are assured that your [BRAND] monitor is helping the environment by using less energy while saving you money.

    2. In the Registered state, you can view the signal, operator, and network information of the available 3G connection.

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  10. important is who is behinde this modification..and why need change? reason ..color (gold )brown ,?thank you for post

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  11. Your posts are most interesting and useful Daryl. I look forward to reading each one of them. After reading this one I did a bit of googling and found this funny example: “We spent most of our time sitting on the back porch watching the cows playing Scrabble and reading”.

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