Dangling, misplaced and squinting modifiers

Dangling modifiers

Dangling, misplaced and squinting modifiers

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*Advice given is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM). Other style manuals, such as CMOS, may differ.

Dangling, misplaced and squinting. These terms might sound odd, but they belong to real grammatical issues, sometimes the result of which can be quite amusing, if not confusing. Let’s look at how to avoid them with a little rearranging of text.

Dangling modifiers

A dangling modifier (or dangling/hanging participle) is a phrase that has been left out in the cold because it has nothing to modify. Most commonly, dangling modifiers appear at the start of a sentence, but wherever they appear, they make readers pause in confusion.

Incorrect:

  • Sitting under a tree, the shade felt cool.

Here, the phrase ‘sitting under a tree’ is modifying ‘the shade’ – the first subject that follows. While there often is shade under a tree, it doesn’t sit there feeling cool. So the real subject is missing.

To fix this issue, you need to include a noun or pronoun for the phrase to modify, else rewrite the phrase as a subordinate clause.

Adding a noun or pronoun:

  • Sitting under a tree, Sarah felt cool in the shade.
  • Sitting under a tree, she felt cool in the shade.

Rewriting the phrase as a subordinate clause:

  • Because Sarah was sitting under a tree, she felt cool in the shade.
  • Because she was sitting in the shade of a tree, Sarah felt cool.
  • Sitting under a shady tree, Sarah felt cool.

Misplaced modifier

A misplaced modifier is a clause, phrase or word that doesn’t sit next to the subject it is meant to be modifying. Here’s where we sometimes see a humorous outcome.

Incorrect:

  • He proposed to her under a chestnut tree with a big smile.

Did the tree have a big smile? Unless the text is a fantasy novel, probably  not.

  • She ordered an orange cake for his birthday yesterday.

Was his birthday yesterday? No, she ordered the cake yesterday.

Correct:

  • With a big smile, he proposed to her under a chestnut tree.
  • Yesterday, she ordered an orange cake for his birthday.

Squinting Modifiers

A squinting modifier ‘looks both ways’. This means it could be read as modifying the words placed before or after it, resulting in ambiguity.

Incorrect:

  • After I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon I ate the cream off the top.

This could be read as ‘I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon’ or ‘with a long spoon, I ate the cream off the top’.

Correct:

  • After I stirred my iced coffee with a long spoon, I ate the cream off the top.
  • After I stirred my iced coffee, I ate the cream off the top with a long spoon.

Incorrect:

  • Cats that eat grass often throw up on carpets.

Do the cats eat grass often, or do they often throw up?

Correct:

  • Cats that eat grass, often throw up on their owner’s carpet.
  • Cats that eat grass often, throw up on their owner’s carpet.

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