Dangling Modifiers

This rant is brought to you by request: Plink42 wants to know what dangling participles are and what to do with them. Now, once you remove your brain from the gutter (since we all know what to do with dangling stuff there), it might be helpful to note that I entitled this rant “Dangling Modifiers” not “Dangling Participles.” This is because participles aren’t the only things that can dangle. And dammit, get your mind back out of the sewer!

Let’s back up and define what a participle is. A participle is a verb that is used as an adjective; backing up further still, an adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun. So then a participle looks like this [all fictitious characters provided by “Person of Interest”]:

A smiling Reese is a happy Reese.


“smiling” is the participle – the verb “smile” is made into a present participle by adding “-ing” (some verbs need to drop their last “e”) so it can define the noun, which in this case is the proper noun “Reese.” “happy” is not a participle because it isn’t a verb; it’s just a plain old adjective.

Participles aren’t limited to “-ing” verbs, either – they can be past tense verbs (usually ending in “-ed”) as well.

Bear would not stop licking the toppled Reese.


“toppled” is the past participle modifying the noun “Reese.” Any verb that is re-tasked to serve as a modifier is a participle.

Now, verbs can also be used as nouns. I know – it sounds confusing, but we do it all the time. In the sentence above, “licking” is a verb form used as a noun, called a gerund, and is functioning as the direct object receiving the action of the verb (Q: Bear would not stop what? A: Licking).

Successfully disarming the bomb made Finch sigh with relief.tumblr_mhk39j2ES71r4la9bo1_500

Taking Stanton down with him was the best thing that Snow ever did.

In the first sentence, “disarming” is used as the subject; the fact that he was successful in disarming the bomb is the subject, “made” is the verb, and “Finch” is the receiver of the action (and again, please try to keep your mind on grammar and not gratuitous smut). In the same way, “Taking” is the subject in the second sentence but it has a whole lot of other words with it. This is called a gerund phrase, and the entire phrase works together as a noun, in this case the subject.

Verbs are also versatile in that, when they partner up with a little two-letter word, they can be used as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. That little word is “to” and these verb forms are called infinitives.

To take an innocent life is something Reese refuses to do.
Having a bomb strapped to him, he had no choice except to follow Stanton’s orders.
Reese stepped away to prevent Finch from approaching, but Finch was too determined.
tumblr_mhk98l8xlV1rojh56o1_400 tumblr_mhk98l8xlV1rojh56o2_400

Finch quickly looked up the codes to unlock the cell phone.

The first two sentences have three infinitives used as nouns: “To take,” “to do,” and “to follow” (“to him” is a regular prepositional phrase since “him” is not a verb form). “To take” is the subject, “to do” is the direct object (Q: Reese refuses what? A: to do), and “to follow” is the object of the preposition “except.”
In the third sentence, “to prevent Finch from approaching” is an adverb phrase modifying the verb “stepped away.” In the fourth, “to unlock the cell phone” is an adjective phrase modifying the noun “codes.”

What does all this have to do with dangling modifiers? Well, all of these verb forms – known collectively as verbals – can be misplaced or dangled, so it’s good to have them clearly in mind. That way if you get the urge to verbal, you can be confident that you know what you’re doing.

Now comes the fun part – the dangling! So let’s jump right in with some examples of dangling participial phrases:

Hanging on the pegboard in his closet, Reese found his spare Uzi.


Was Reese hanging on the pegboard? No, the Uzi was. This should be reworded:

Reese found his spare Uzi hanging on the pegboard in his closet.

This way the comma can also be eliminated. Next dangler:

Firing his pistol, Reese’s enemies were taken out one by one.

Were the enemies firing his pistol? No, Reese was. Should be reworded:

Firing his pistol, Reese took out his enemies one by one.
As Reese fired his pistol, his enemies were taken out one by one.
Reese fired his pistol, taking out his enemies one by one.

The middle revision above is grammatically correct, but it is a weak way of stating the facts since the verb is made passive (“were taken out”) rather than active (“took” or “taking”). For a fight scene, you want to make the sentences as direct and hard-hitting as possible, so the first or the third revisions would be best.

Next up is a dangling gerund phrase:

By entering the right code, Reese did not get detonated.

Did Reese enter the code? No, his faithful partner Finch did. Reword to:

By entering the right code, Finch ensured that Reese would not be detonated.
By entering the right code, Finch prevented Reese from being detonated.
Since Finch entered the right code, Reese did not get detonated.
or even
Finch entered the right code, ensuring that Reese would not get detonated.

Why list all the choices? It goes back to my very first rant about paragraphs and how often writers switch the subject from one person to the other, back and forth – sometimes even to their body parts. If the rest of the paragraph is talking about Reese, the third option (“Reese did not get detonated”) should be chosen so the entire paragraph is focused on him. If it is talking about Finch, then any of the other options would be fine.

Next is the dangling infinitive phrase:

To rescue the Numbers who are victims, excellent physical condition is a must.

Who is doing the rescuing? There is no appropriate subject since “excellent physical condition” is not going to walk around New York City rescuing people. Reword to:

To rescue the Numbers who are victims, Reese must be in excellent physical condition.

Finally, there is one other type of dangler that is actually a clause. A clause is like a phrase, only with a subject and verb; sometimes the subject can be understood or implied, but if the main subject of the sentence doesn’t match up with the implied subject of the clause, it can lead to some serious confusion.

When leaving the hospital, Finch ran into Reese.

Was Finch leaving the hospital? No, Reese was. Correct to:

When leaving the hospital, Reese was run into by Finch.
When Reese was leaving the hospital, Finch ran into him.

Another example with a wandering body part to boot:

While shooting out the headlights, his leg was shot.
[“Number Crunch” ending]

Was his leg shooting the headlights? No – although Reese might be dexterous enough to fire a weapon with his leg (or foot or toe), this was not the case.

While Reese was shooting out the headlights, his leg was shot.
Reese’s leg was shot while he was shooting out the headlights.
Reese was shot in the leg while shooting out the headlights.

The first revision added a proper subject, “Reese” (and what a lovely subject he is!); the second revision switched the order around so the comma could be deleted; and the third revision reworded it so that “Reese” stays the subject – without switching to “his leg.” Try to avoid making body parts the subject; your main focus (and your readers’) should be on the character himself/herself, not his/her hands, eyes, mouth, lips, nose-hairs, or earwax.

When fully disarmed, Finch unplugged the cell phone.

I see more of this type of mistake than you can imagine. Whenever you have a clause with an implied subject like this (called an elliptical clause), its subject must be the same as the subject of the main sentence. Was Finch fully disarmed? Although he was unarmed and can be both disarming and charming, that is not what this sentence is trying to say; it was the cell phone (bomb) that needed to be disarmed.

When the cell phone was fully disarmed, Finch unplugged it.
or (more specifically)
When the bomb was fully disarmed, Finch unplugged the cell phone.
or (better yet)
Finch unplugged the cell phone when the bomb was fully disarmed.

Last one:

While breathing a sigh of relief, a loud explosion startled Finch and prevented Reese from hugging him.
tumblr_mhk39j2ES71r4la9bo1_500 tumblr_mhk39j2ES71r4la9bo2_500

Okay, I think you know what the problem is by now. Was the explosion breathing a sigh of relief? Well, the explosion might be considered a sigh of relief by the bomb, which must have hated being stuck to Snow all that time; and the consequent death of both Snow and Stanton certainly caused a lot of Irrelevants to breathe a sigh of relief; but in this case, either Finch or Reese is the one who sighed in relief – or possibly both. So then it could be:

While breathing a sigh of relief, Finch was startled by a loud explosion which prevented Reese from hugging him.
While Finch was breathing a sigh of relief, a loud explosion startled him and prevented Reese from hugging him.
While Reese was breathing a sigh of relief, a loud explosion startled Finch and prevented Reese from hugging him.
While Finch and Reese were sighing in relief, a loud explosion startled them, preventing Reese from hugging Finch.

You get the idea. Always make sure that your sentences make sense. Avoid making body parts the subjects. And when in doubt, try to reword the sentence several different ways to see what fits the paragraph best.


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  1. Plink42

     /  2013/02/03

    Well, if the gutter wasn’t such a fun place to be… 🙂

    I understand it now! Thank you, O Wise One! You should’ve been an English teacher. You should consider doing a series of posts on the more obscure parts of speech and/or grammar rules. Maybe it’ll inspire the burgeoning fic writers out there.

    Now back to the lovely images of Reese & Finch hugging. 😀

    • Ha! I don’t have the patience to teach a roomful of teenagers, but I can post this sort of information from time to time if you think anyone will use it.

      You’re free to go back to your friendly neighborhood gutter, but I’m going to punctuate this post with some pics so I hope you come back later to check them out! 😉

  2. dancing dog

     /  2013/02/03

    Thank you, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken any grammer lessons, and I wish your lesson examples were the ones used. 😉

    • Hope it helps! When Plink asked about dangling modifiers and I was casting about for some clever examples, I happened to come across the photo of JC in the gun closet — voila! 😉

  3. rainiejanie

     /  2013/02/04

    This does make things a lot clearer, but the more technical aspects of grammar still makes my brain hurt. Ow.

    When you started talking about verbs, I started thinking of the verb song from “Schoolhouse Rock.” I miss that show. Yes, I’m that old.

    • My best friend swears by Schoolhouse Rock! 😀 I’ve only seen it recently on YouTube, but that’s because I grew up overseas. “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here…” XD

  4. Okay. That was a very clear description. From now on I will leave my comments holding my breath for fear they won’t pass your test with at least a “c”. And yes I changed that sentence twice trying to make it better.

    • Oh dear, I *do* come across as a bit of a Grammar Nazi, but when comments are love, who cares about grammar? 😉 But if you’re trying to get anything published, I hope my little rants might help. 🙂

      • But do not hesitate. I think I’m learning that hesitation is decay. — no, Gangrene. It is death of soul.

        (I might be in a mood … sorry, fellow Thea fans.)

  5. Ah, when subjects don’t match their descriptors. My favorite oddity, spotted on Wikipedia some years ago, went something like this:

    “Six feet tall, middle-aged, and balding, Charles Emerson Winchester was born…”

    Your article here is not only fun and memorable, but does an excellent job of conveying the necessary information through concrete examples. It was a great read!

    My one quibble is with this example:

    “To rescue the Numbers who are victims, excellent physical condition is a must.” — said to be an error.

    Let’s see:

    “Excellent physical condition is required in order to rescue the victims.” — slight rephrasing; seems to work fine.

    I see no reason you couldn’t flip it around. Seems to me a bit like a passive construction or one where you deliberately omit the subject: While these forms shouldn’t be common, they are occasionally useful in conveying (or refusing to convey) certain information or a certain tone. I could see this kind of line in a pamphlet explaining the benefits of exercise.

    “To win the Olympics, peak physical condition is a must, as is a commitment to daily practice.”

    • Thank you! What a nice surprise to know someone is still reading this old post. 🙂

      Point taken — in some instances, that type of sentence can be used effectively. I still think it makes for better, clearer prose when you reword it with a definite subject. Even reworded, as you did, to make “excellent physical condition” the subject is a much better choice. My day job is as a Japanese translator, and since subjects are often implied in Japanese, I see a lot of these passive sentences in the English translations — when a slight rewording to insert the obvious subject would make it so much easier to understand. That’s probably why it’s in here. 🙂


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