Sunday, July 24, 2011

Exploring misplaced and dangling modifiers

This is my attempt to get to grips with the subject of misplaced and dangling modifiers. I freely admit to being at the edge of my comfort zone here, and to not necessarily knowing all the answers. But although my opinions may be a bit wobbly, I don't think I've made any huge errors.
This is quite a detailed exploration, so you might want to dip in and out rather than take it all in at one sitting.
We will look at the following aspects using the occasional exercise for illustration:
  • What is a modifier?
  • The placing of modifiers
  • Is it misplaced or simply dangling?
  • Misplaced modifiers, and how to avoid them
  • Different types of dangling modifiers
  • Dangling participles, and how to fix them
  • Identifying dangling modifiers
  • What is a squinting modifier?
  • Some natural sounding danglers
  • Two case studies from language blogs

1. What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word, phrase or clause which, while not being grammatically necessary, gives more meaning to other words. The most common ones are adverbs and adjectives, or phrases and clauses that act like adverbs and adjectives.

Exercise 1 - Match the words, phrases and clauses in bold with their modifying function below.

1. He slowly opened the window
2. In fact he opened it very slowly
3. Because the door is incredibly old
4. The cat ran right up the tree
5. We waited in the departure lounge
6. That is the man who is going to marry my sister
7. She's the one with the enormous hat
8. We had walked twenty kilometres before we had a break
9. She's two inches taller than me
10. Running up the stairs he shouted at us to follow

a)adverb modifying a preposition
b)noun phrase modifying a verb
c)noun modifying a noun
d)relative clause modifying a noun
e)prepositional phrase modifying a pronoun
f)adverb modifying an adverb
g)adverb modifying a verb
h)adverb modifying an adjective
i)participle clause modifying a pronoun
j)noun phrase modifying an adjective

2. The placing of modifiers

The general principle is that any modifier should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase it modifies. I prefer to call this a principle rather than a rule for these reasons:
  • Misplaced and dangling modifiers are more a matter of style than grammar. We are more concerned about them when writing rather than speaking.
  • Trying to avoid them is essentially to do with clarity and avoiding ambiguity.
  • They may sound funny sometimes, but they don't sound grammatically wrong.
  • A common problem happens when a word or phrase has more than one modifier, only one of which can go next to the modified word or phrase.
  • Sometimes breaking this principle might sound better than the alternatives.

3. What is the difference between a misplaced modifier and a dangling modifier?

Exercise 2 - Choose which word or phrase the expressions in bold are intended to modify.

1. They just said it's going to rain on the radio.
said
rain
2. When only five, Hilda’s parents separated.
Hilda's parents
Hilda
3. A pleasant young woman with a nose ring named Rebecca works there.
the pleasant young woman
the nose ring
4. Colonel Saunders shot a tiger dressed in his pajamas. (Groucho Marx)
Colonel Saunders
the tiger
In three of the sentences above the modifiers have 'wandered' from the word or phrase they should be modifying. So they are said to be 'misplaced'. But in one sentence, the word the modifier should be attached to simply isn't there. In this case the modifier is said to be 'dangling' (hanging), rather than misplaced.

Exercise 3 - In which sentence above can you find:

1.A dangling modifier
2.A misplaced participle clause
3.A misplaced prepositional clause
4.A misplaced reduced relative clause

So let's try and fix those sentences.

Exercise 4 - Enter new sentences, following the instructions. Remember to begin with a capital letter and finish with a full stop (period). Modifiers are in bold.

1.They just said it's going to rain on the radio.
We need to move the modifier to immediately after the word it modifies (see Ex 2).
2.When only five, Hilda’s parents separated.
This is a so-called elliptical clause (more about them later). The easiest thing is to add the missing subject (use a pronoun) and verb to the modifying clause.
3.A pleasant young woman with a nose ring named Rebecca works there.
This one's a bit more complicated as 'A pleasant young woman' has two modifiers: with a nose ring and named Rebecca.They can't both be next to the phrase they modify. One possible fix is to split it into two sentences. Take out the clause in bold and add it as a new sentence starting with 'She's'
4.Colonel Saunders shot a tiger dressed in his pajamas.
One way is to move the participle clause to its more usual position at the front of the sentence. Remember to add a comma.
We'll look more at dangling modifiers a bit later, but for the moment we'll continue with misplaced modifiers.

4. Misplaced modifiers

Misplaced words - Some words, especially adverbs, can sometimes end up next to the wrong word, changing the intended meaning.

Adverbs - almost, barely, just, nearly, only.

Look carefully at these sentences:
  • We almost called everyone to the meeting
  • We called almost everyone to the meeting
  • Because of the bad traffic, nearly everyone missed the meeting
  • Because of the bad traffic, everyone nearly missed the meeting
  • Only John missed the January monthly meeting.
  • John only missed the January monthly meeting.
Question - Do the sentences in each pair have the same meaning?
Yes No
Now look at these sentences:
  • I only ate vegetables
  • I ate only vegetables
  • He's had all morning and he's just written three reports
  • He's had all morning and he's written just three reports
  • He barely kicked the ball ten yards
  • He kicked the ball barely ten yards
Question - Do the sentences in each pair have the same meaning?
Yes No
Question - Which sentence in each pair of the second group sounds more natural to you?
1st 2nd

Misplaced phrases

  • The mobile phone with the 32g memory card sold best.
  • The mobile phone sold best with the 32g memory card.
Question - Do these two sentences have the same meaning?
Yes No

Misplaced prepositional phrases

These seem to be one of the most frequent types of misplaced phrase. I've adapted these from real cases that have appeared in newspapers, taken from a post at the linguistics blog, Language Log (link below)
  • The boy was found by a tracker dog together with his younger sister.
  • People bought more books by living writers this year than by writers who are dead for the first time.
  • She was seen in a car similar to the one which had been stolen by Police Officer Smith
  • The new season of Prom concerts will delight all those who love classical music for the next two months.
  • Students will be shown how to reduce their rubbish in the form of leaflets, posters and promotional items.
Possible fixes might be:
  • The boy, together with his younger sister, was found by a tracker dog .
  • For the first time, people bought more books by living writers this year than by writers who are dead.
  • She was seen by Police Officer Smith in a car similar to the one which had been stolen.
  • The new season of Prom concerts, which continues for the next two months, will delight all those who love classical music.
  • Students will be shown, in the form of leaflets, posters and promotional items, how to reduce their rubbish.

Misplaced clauses

  • We took our car to the garage when it stopped functioning.
  • When our car stopped functioning, we took it to the garage.
Theoretically there's a problem in the first sentence, as the 'it' could be thought of as modifying 'garage', the nearest preceding noun. Context makes the meaning pretty clear, but if you want to avoid any ambiguity, just put the subordinate clause first, as in the second example.

Misplaced defining relative clauses

In these cases the relative clauses could be seen as modifying the second noun instead of the first one. Sometimes with funny effects.
  • Police were searching for a man with a shotgun that robbed a bank.
  • The judge fined the man arrested in the pub that was guilty of fraud.
  • They managed to free the boat with two people aboard that ran aground.
  • The woman vacuumed the carpet covered with dirt that she had bought last week.
In these cases, the first noun has two modifiers, the expression with the second noun and the relative clause. They can't both go next to the thing being modified. Sometimes we can fix them by simply changing that to who or which, or we can make one of the modifiers non-identifying, which we probably have to do in the last example:
  • The woman vacuumed the carpet she had bought last week, which was covered with dirt.

Misplaced reduced relative clauses

Something similar can happen with reduced relative clauses
  • The houses in the village made of wood burned first.
  • The paintings of villagers hanging in the the long gallery were his favourites.
  • The wooden models of sailing ships mounted on stands sold very well.
  • The people in the shop shouting at the staff were arrested.

Misplaced participles

We'll have a look at these after we've looked at dangling participles.

Some misplaced odds and ends

These are loosely based on real-life examples with unintended comical second meanings.
Double meaning
  • When playing tennis, Mrs Jones is very happy when she can hit the ball as well as her husband.
  • Does she hit the ball and her husband?
Misplaced infinitive
  • The money will allow the widow of Mr Jones, who died in December to have a holiday.
  • Who's going to have a holiday? Mr Jones?
Pronoun problem
  • Despite his shady past, the prime minister appointed Steve Jones as his PR representative.
  • Whose shady past? The prime minister's?
Possible fixes
  • When playing tennis, Mrs Jones is very happy when she can hit the ball as well as her husband can.
  • The money will allow the widow of Mr Jones, who died in December, to have a holiday.
  • Despite Steve Jones' shady past, the prime minister appointed him as his PR representative.

5. Dangling modifiers

When does a modifier dangle?

Here's the traditional principle:
When a modifying phrase precedes the main clause of a sentence, the person or thing being described should come right after that phrase. Otherwise, the modifier dangles, detached from its referent, creating awkwardness, confusion or even comedy.
Philip B. Corbett at the New York Times
In other words, when the modifying clause (usually, but not always, a participle clause) comes first, the implied subject of that modifying clause should be the same as the subject of the main clause. That's how it's usually described in TEFL books. Many people think we should only use adverbial modifying clauses when this is the case.
In the following two sentences the subject of the main clause is obviously 'he'. What do you think is the implied subject of the modifying clause? Think about Who? or What?, or try working out what the modifier would look like if it was a full clause with a subject. Put your mouse over the modifier to see my answer.
  • Running across the road, he he didn't see the lorry coming.
  • Tired out after his long walk, he went straight to bed.
In the following examples, something else (a lorry) or somebody else (his wife) comes between the participle clause and its subject – he, which has now become the object – him in the main clause. The participle clause is said to be left 'dangling' (hanging) without a valid subject to attach itself to.
  • Running across the road, a lorry almost hit him.
  • Tired out after his long walk, his wife made him lie down .
In those two examples the context makes the real meaning fairly clear, but some people (and a lot of grammar websites) think this is not correct and many writers try to avoid it.

Not all dangling modifiers are dangling participles

A recent article in the Guardian commented on the need to cut down on dangling modifiers / participles because they annoy the reader. And the writer gave these examples:
  • Hopping briskly through the vegetable garden, John saw a toad.
  • Gently warmed in the oven and smothered in cream cheese, my friends loved the bagels.
  • To be really filling, you could add some boiled potatoes to the salad
  • .
And goes on to say:
What is wrong is that they all contain dangling modifiers (also known as hanging or dangling participles)
Well, to be pernickety, the third example is an infinitive not a participle, so the first thing to note is that although dangling participles are the most common type of dangling modifier, there are a few others. We've already briefly looked at an elliptical clause, for example, and here we see an infinitive clause.
But back to her point: you're obviously meant to ask yourself:
  • Who was hopping – John or the toad?
  • Were my friends really warmed in the oven?
  • Am I being filling, or the salad?
The problem here is that, amusing though they are, these examples look as though they have been invented to prove a point; it's unlikely any sane person would ever have written them. And this is probably true of the majority of absurd or ambiguous danglers you see quoted on the Internet, epitomised by the most famous dangler of all:
Flying south for the winter, I saw a huge flock of swallows
which as I understand it, was invented by a grammarian to illustrate his point. Most danglers you see on the Internet are apocryphal, they were 'never fired in anger'. Real ones are much less obvious, as I hope the following examples show.

What types of modifier can dangle?

The only modifiers that can dangle are those (usually non-finite clauses) which do not contain an explicit subject, but rather an implicit one. And only when they come before the main clause (when they come after they can be misplaced, as in the tiger dressed in pajamas example we just looked at, more on that later).
Because the subject is not explicitly mentioned, the theory is that it needs to agree with the subject of the following main clause, or the reader will be confused.
The following sentences all have dangling modifiers – the subject of the modifying clause does not agree with the subject of the main clause. Work out what the implied subject of each modifying clause is (ask yourself - Who? or What? - usually just a pronoun will do), then put your mouse over it to see the answer.
  • Participle clauses
    • Washing her hair, some shampoo got into her eyes.
    • Frightened by its own reflection in the mirror, a loud hissing and spitting sound came from the cat.
  • Gerund clauses
    • Before living in France, his cooking was awful.
    • Since meeting you, my life has been wonderful.
  • Infinitive clauses
    • To do well in your exams, all these texts need to be learnt by heart.
    • To make the most of your time here, all classes should be attended.
  • Introductory elliptical clauses
    • When just a small boy, his mother ran off with a sailor.
    • While at Acme Insurance, working long hours seemed natural to him.
Note 1 - The term gerund clause is frequently used when an -ing form follows a preposition. But I have treated them as participle clauses – see 'A note on the ing- form after certain prepositions and conjunctions' for my reasons.
Note 2 - Similarly, while some grammarians categorise the subordinate clause in sentences like While cleaning the oven, somebody rang the doorbell. as an elliptical clause, I have also treated them as participle clauses, for similar reasons – see the same note.
Note 3 - With full subordinate clauses, where the subject is explictly mentioned, there is no need for the two subjects to agree, so there is nothing to dangle. For this reason, they are sometimes the best way to fix a dangler. More on that later.
  • While she was washing her hair, some shampoo got into her eyes.
  • Before he lived in France, his cooking was awful.
  • If you want to do well in your exams, all these texts need to be learnt by heart.
  • While he was working at Acme Insurance, working long hours seemed natural to him.

6. Dangling participles

Participle clauses

Here we look at four types of participle clauses:
  • With a present participle
    - Sliding back the door, she stepped out into the garden
  • With a past participle -
    Added to milk, it makes a nice drink
  • With a perfect participle -
    Having read the paper, he went out for a walk
  • With an ing- form after certain prepositions and conjunctions
    - Before employing you, we need to see some references.
You can find out more about participle clauses in my lesson on participles and participle clauses (link below). For a short note on the ing- form after certain prepositions and conjunctions, see below.

What happens to the subject in dangling participles?

  • Sometimes it appears as the object in the main clause:
  • Walking to my office, somebody hailed me from the other side of the street.
  • Stolen from the Louvre, the police recovered the painting late last night.
  • Having emptied the fridge, there was nothing left for us to eat.
  • On passing all her exams with top grades, her father gave her a car.
  • Sometimes it appears as a possessive in the main clause:
  • Travelling to Paris on Eurostar, our luggage went missing somehow.
  • Brought up in Blackpool, Peter's memories are mainly of the seaside.
  • Not having read the book, Sally's knowledge of the plot was pretty basic.
  • While quite liking seafood, my favourite dish is Roast Pork
  • Sometimes it disappears altogether:
  • Drinking a cup of strong coffee, the day didn't seem so bad after all.
  • Taught to write at an early age, dangling modifiers were never a problem.
  • Having been away so long, the city looked totally unfamiliar.
  • Before lighting a fire for the first time, the chimney should be swept.
These sentences are probably more typical of real life dangling modifiers than those of the Flying south for the winter, I saw a huge flock of swallows type. There is really no ambiguity, and the only problem could be the jar factor. They are also more difficult to spot in a test!

Sorry! The jar factor – what's that?

The campaign against dangling modifiers seems to have started with Henry Watson Fowler (1858 – 1933), famous for his A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) one of the most influential of all style books. He was one of the first to advise against using dangling modifiers, but at the same time said “It must be admitted that unattached participles [danglers] seldom lead to ambiguity. They just jar.
OALD gives three meanings for the verb jar, the one we are interested in being:
jar (something / on something) – to have an unpleasant or annoying effect
Basically, when we are reading we want a smooth experience. We don't want to have to stop to work out the exact meaning of some phrase or other. This is what can happen with dangling modifiers ‐ we have to stop and perhaps read the sentence again to fully know what's gong on ‐ the text 'jars'. At least that's the theory.

A note on the ing- form after certain prepositions and conjunctions

Participle clauses often follow certain prepositions and conjunctions, such as while, when, before, after, by, on, since etc. (there's more about this in my lesson on participle clauses – link below). When these are prepositions, they have been traditionally called gerund clauses, but in Practical English Usage, Michael Swan says they can often be regarded as gerunds or as participles. It is also not always easy to decide whether the introductory word is a preposition or a conjunction. For this reason I've lumped them together.
This is in line with TEFL books, which tend to talk about -ing forms rather than gerunds and present participles. It is also in line with the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, whose editors, Rodney D. Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum have put forward the idea of the gerund-participle, doing away with the traditional distinction between the two. They also talk about this in their book, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, and you can read the relevant page in Google books, which I have linked to below.

How to fix a dangling participle.

Let's look at our original examples again:
  • Running across the road, a lorry almost hit him.
  • Tired out after his long walk, his wife made him lie down .
Exercise 5 - in the following exercises, don't add any punctuation.
We can either make the two subjects agree, which can often involve turning an active clause into a passive one:
  • Running across the road, by a lorry.
  • Tired out after his long walk, by his wife.
Or we can rewrite the sentences with full clauses rather than participle clauses.
  • While , a lorry almost hit him.
  • As , his wife made him lie down .
Which might sound better if we reverse the clauses.
  • A lorry .
  • His wife .

7. Other types of dangling modifiers

Gerund clauses

Please see 'A note on the ing- form after certain prepositions and conjunctions'

Infinitive clauses

Look at these sentences; work out what the subject of each infinitive clause is, then mouse over for the answer.
  • To function properly, you should regularly clean the machine.
  • To get the best out of your printer, it should be regularly cleaned.
Exercise 6 - So to fix it, we can simply change the main clause slightly so that the correct subject appears at the beginning of the main clause. One way to do this is to change active to passive, or passive to active. You try (keep it simple):
  • To function properly, .
  • To get the best out of your printer, .

Elliptical clauses

Elliptical clauses are simply clauses with some kind of ellipsis – some words have been left out.
All we are interested in are so-called introductory elliptical clauses, where the subject and the verb (usually to be) are left out. Sentence 2 in Exercise 2 was an example. This especially seems to happen with when and while.
Look at these sentences; work out what the subject of each infinitive clause is, then mouse over for the answer.
  • When only four, his elder sister taught him to read and write.
  • While at primary school, Russian was her favourite subject.
Exercise 7 - When the subjects of the two clauses are different, we can have a problem. Although how serious, probably depends on context. If necessary, we can fix this in one of two ways:
  • We can make the subjects agree (use pronouns) (mouse over the boxes for hints):
    • When only four, by his elder sister.
    • While at primary school, became very fond of Russian.
  • or we can add the missing subject (and it's verb) to the introductory clause:
    • When , his elder sister taught him to read and write.
    • While , Russian was her favourite subject.
Update - Thanks to that Guardian article, I've realised that we could also have elliptical clauses starting with as. What is the subject of the first clause in each of these sentences? (mouse over to see).
  • As the only gay in the village, romance didn't come his way very often.
  • As your prime minister, it is my intention to put the economy first.
In fact, these two wouldn't particularly bother me, but let's fix them anyway - mouse over the boxes for hints.
  • As , romance didn't come his way very often.
  • As your prime minister, to put the economy first.
Note - Some grammarians include in this category sentences like:
  • While cleaning the oven, somebody rang the doorbell.
  • When out doing the shopping, it started to snow.
As these contain -ing forms, I've dealt with them under '-ing clauses after certain prepositions and conjunctions'. But we might as well fix these as well, while we're at it - just add a subject and verb to the first clause. We'll say the subject is she
  • While , somebody rang the doorbell.
  • When , it started to snow.

8. Identifying dangling modifiers

Exercise 8 - Tick (check) the boxes where you think the modifier is dangling, in other words where the two subjects are not the same. Careful! In one or two sentences the two subjects could be the same, even if rather unlikely.

1. a. Walking down the road, he hummed a tune to himself.
b. Humming a tune to himself, he walked down the road.
c. Walking down the road, a tune kept going round in his head.
d. Walking down the road, I could hear him humming to himself.
2. a. Brought up by his French aunt, Mark's French was fluent.
b. Brought up by his French aunt, Mark spoke fluent French.
c. Brought up by his French aunt, speaking French came naturally to Mark.
d. Having been brought up by his French aunt, he spoke French fluently.
3. a. The strawberries having all been eaten, we were feeling rather full.
b. Having eaten all the strawberries, the shopkeeper told us he had sold out.
c. Having eaten all the strawberries, the store cupboard was empty.
d. Having eaten all the strawberries, we went to the shops for more.
4. a. To assemble the cupboard, the parts should first be laid out on a flat surface.
b. To assemble the cupboard, first lay out all the parts on a flat surface.
c. Looking at this diagram, you should first check you have all the parts.
d. Following these instructions carefully, assembling the table is quite straightforward.
5. a. Looking out the window, the cat started hissing at the cows.
b. Totally occupied with eating, the cows completely ignored the cat.
c. Looking out the window, she saw some cows had got into the garden.
d. Looking out the window, some cows caught her attention.
6. a. While in Paris, she studied at the Sorbonne.
b. When ten years old, his father bought him a bike.
c. While at the Sorbonne, her studies led to her interest in anthropology.
d. When a teenager, the future millionaire took a keen interest in the stock market.
7. a. Prepared in advance, this dish doesn't take long to cook.
b. Planned in advance, the essay almost writes itself.
c. Prepared in advance, cooking this dish doesn't take long.
d. Planned in advance, you will find the essay isn't so difficult.
8. a. After eating our picnic, feeding the horses seemed only natural.
b. After eating our picnic, the horses left our corner of the field.
c. After eating our picnic, a nap in the afternoon sun seemed called for.
d. After eating our picnic, we fed the horses.
9. a. Feeding the animals, the pleasure was evident on the children's faces.
b. Feeding the animals, the children laughed and joked.
c. Laughing happily, the children fed the animals.
d. Laughing happily, the faces of the children were a picture of pleasure.
10. a. Taken by surprise, his answer was non-committal.
b. Taken by surprise, he didn't know what to say.
c. Taken by surprise, the politician had no idea how to answer the question.
d. Taken by surprise, words failed him.

Show notes

What about when the main clause comes first?

In all the examples of participle clauses we've looked at so far, the participle clause has come first, and the main clause second. This is the more common pattern, and nearly all questions about dangling modifiers follow this pattern. But occasionally the main clause will come first:
  • He sent a letter to his nephew, telling him all about his trip.
  • A report has been sent to the police, giving full details of what happened.
Here the subjects of the two clauses are the same, but a noun has got between the subject of the main clause and the participle clause. For some people that is a problem, and here the close as possible rule can sometimes be useful.
  • He sent his nephew a letter, telling him all about his trip.
  • The police have been sent a report, giving full details of what happened.
But if we compare these pairs of sentences:
  • A man was walking down the street, handing out flowers to passers-by.
  • A man handing out flowers to passers-by was walking down the street.
  • There was a report in the paper, giving all the details of the sordid affair.
  • There was a report giving all the details of the sordid affair in the paper.
For me, the first sentence in each pair flows better, even though the modifier is separated from the word it is modifying. To be honest, I haven't been able to find much information about this sort of situation, so I'm not sure what the 'official line' is in these circumstances.

Dealing with multiple modifiers – what a difference a comma makes.

We'll now look at four examples which I've adapted from real cases that have appeared in newspapers, taken from a post at the linguistics blog, Language Log. I've underlined the problem modifiers. The problem is basically the same in each case – words or phrases having more than one modifier, and of course they can't all go next to whatever it is they are modifying. Which, incidentally, is a problem I also had with the first sentence of this paragraph.
  • We spent most of the day sitting on the back porch watching the cows playing Scrabble and reading.
  • The burglar was about 30 years old, white, 5' 10", with wavy hair weighing about 70 kilos .
  • Hunting can also be dangerous, as in the case of pygmies hunting elephants armed only with spears.
  • Several hundred people gathered in the main square for a protest against racism organized by the mayor.
In the first two sentences we essentially have lists of modifiers, so we could treat them as we normally do with lists, add a comma or perhaps an and. In the third we have two modifiers, which can simply be divided with a comma.
  • We spent most of the day sitting on the back porch, watching the cows and playing Scrabble and reading.
  • The burglar was about 30 years old, white, 5' 10", with wavy hair, (and) weighing about 70 kilos .
  • Hunting can also be dangerous, as in the case of pygmies hunting elephants, armed only with spears.
The last sentence could also be dealt with by adding a comma before the participle clause, or by using a (reduced) non-defining relative clause:
  • Several hundred people gathered in the main square for a protest, (which had been) organized by the mayor, against racism.

9. What are squinting modifiers?

This is a modifier that 'looks both ways'. It seems to happen most often when there's a combination of a defining relative clause and an adverb or adverbial of frequency
These are fairly typical of the sort of examples you see quoted.
  • Dogs which go to shows often are better behaved
  • People who smoke occasionally can cough a bit.
  • Cars which get serviced rarely can break down.
It's not clear whether it's the dogs which often go to shows that are better behaved, or that dogs which go to shows are often better behaved (there is a small difference). Here we need to make sure that we put the adverb directly before the verb it modifies (after if the verb is to be).
  • Dogs which often go to shows are better behaved
  • Dogs which go to shows are often better behaved
  • People who occasionally smoke can cough a bit.
  • People who smoke can occasionally cough a bit.
  • Cars which rarely get serviced will break down.
  • Cars which get serviced will rarely break down.
To me those first three uncorrected examples are a bit forced, because it's really quite obvious where the adverb should go. But look at these examples:
  • Dogs which are trained often perform better in shows.
  • People who smoke from time to time cough a bit.
  • Cars which are not serviced very often break down.
In these examples the main clause doesn't have an auxiliary to put the adverbial after, and the adverbial doesn't sound so natural before the first verb. Here, to my mind, we can't move the adverbs quite so easily, so the answer is probably a judiciously placed comma.
  • Dogs which are trained, often perform better in shows.
  • Dogs which are trained often, perform better in shows.
  • People who smoke from time to time, cough a bit.
  • People who smoke, from time to time cough a bit.
  • Cars which are not serviced, very often break down.
  • Cars which are not serviced very often, break down.
Or just to rewrite the sentences in a less ambiguous way.

10. Natural sounding danglers

We are mostly concerned about dangling modifiers in written English. In fact, as Michael Swan points out in 'Practical English Usage', in real life we use what are theoretically dangling or misplaced participles quite often, especially when the main clause starts with introductory it or there. (You can read more about 'introductory there' in another post - see link below.)
The subject of all the participle clauses is I (and he in No.5), but the subject of the main clause is it or there. So, technically, these are danglers.

Exercise 9a - Complete these sentences by typing in it or there.

1.Being stuck in a traffic jam for so long, 's surprising I made the meeting at all.
2.Having slept in late twice in a row, wasn't a lot I could say in my defence.
3.Not having much time, was only so much I could do.
4.Being late so often, 's a miracle I wasn't sacked.
5.Being Swedish, wasn't surprising he spoke such good English.
6.Having finished all my work, 's a good chance I'll get off early.
They are also quite common in expressions referring to the speaker's attitude.

Exercise 9b - Complete these expressions by typing in present or past participles based on the verbs in the box.

suppose   ·   judge   ·   take   ·   consider   ·   speak   ·   give
1.All things , it wasn't such a bad idea.
2.Broadly , they were all in agreement.
3. it rains this weekend, what shall we do?
4. everything into consideration, they really should have won.
5. what we know about the risks, do you really think it's worth it?
6. by appearances, she didn't get the job.
But the purists don't like these either!

11. Two case studies from language blogs

Case study 1 - rather detailed

There is apparently a short passage from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which goes:
"It's the fastest broom in the world, isn't it, Dad?", squeaked a boy smaller than Harry, who was swinging off his father's arm.
The blogger at Mighty Red Pen suggests that it has Harry "literally dangling". But although that made for good copy, grammatically speaking nobody is left dangling anywhere. Because there are no modifiers looking for something to modify. In fact the opposite is true. The non-defining relative clause who was swinging off his father's arm not only has one noun to attach itself to, it is spoilt for choice.
Question - who was swinging off his father's arm?
The boy
Harry
What's happening here is that the noun phrase a boy has two modifiers:
  • smaller than Harry
  • who was swinging off his father's arm
If Rowling had written:
...squeaked a small boy, who was swinging off his father's arm.
Nobody would have anything to complain about. But that wouldn't have conveyed the information that the author wanted, so she wrote it the way she did. The problem for the blogger is that who comes immediately after Harry.
An alternative might have been:
"It's the fastest broom in the world, isn't it, Dad?", squeaked a boy who was smaller than Harry, and who was swinging off his father's arm.
But Rowling might well have thought that that would have been a bit unwieldy, and that the mention of ‘Dad’ and ‘his father’ in the original version make the meaning absolutely clear. Which is what I think, so I sent in a comment along those lines, saying that as there was no possible confusion, what was the problem?
And someone called Dave replied:
Regardless of issues of confusion, it’s just sloppy, silly, and awkward. It is the sort of writing that makes one wish that Fowler was back with cane in hand.
To which I can only say: I just wish I could write in as sloppy, silly and awkward way as Rowling, one of the best-loved and, let's not be shy about it, best-paid authors in the world. Well actually I could say a lot more, but it wouldn't be very polite.
Incidentally, Rowling is in good company; the likes of Jane Austen and Arthur Miller are also 'guilty' of using dangling modifiers.
At which point perhaps we ought perhaps to remind ourselves: there is nothing grammatically wrong with misplaced and dangling modifiers; it is purely a matter of style. And it is really only relevant when we are talking about writing.

Case study 2

This comes from another blog - the Sentence Sleuth, run by the author of "The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing". She found this sentence in a book she was reading:
Dressed only in a t-shirt and panties, he then dragged her to his car.
Question - who was dressed only in a t-shirt and panties? (You need to know what panties are for this one, and who usually wear them)
The man
The woman
Now we really do have something dangling - the participle clause Dressed only in a t-shirt and panties has no subject to attach to. It clearly doesn't go with he, but her is the object, so that won't do either. In this case the blogger has a point, there is some ambiguity (if you think this man might wear panties, that is). Her solution was:
Dressed only in a t-shirt and panties, she was then dragged to his car.
But I thought that the use of the passive here took away from the fact that it was him doing it, and also from the drama of the situation, so my preferred version was:
He then dragged her to his car, dressed as she was in only a T-shirt and panties.
But the more I think about it, the more I think we haven't been told the whole story. What if instead of looking forward, we should in fact be looking back. What if it had actually gone something like this:
As the girl was getting undressed for bed, a man wearing dirty overalls burst into her room and grabbed her. Dressed only in a T-shirt and panties, he then dragged her to his car.
And if we want to make it even clearer we can change a T-shirt and panties to her T-shirt and panties.
This doesn't look so ambiguous now, everything is clear from the context. We know who he is, we know who she is, who was wearing roughly what, and who is likely to do what to whom. And I bet the preceding sentence was in fact something like that. But then why let a good story get in the way of a supposed grammar rule?

12. Final thoughts

Use your common sense.

It's probably best to try and avoid misplaced and dangling modifiers in your writing where you can, especially in formal writing and tests. Danglers, in particular, are fairly easily spotted if you use the two subjects rule.
The problem comes when you have multiple modifiers, which can't all go next to the thing being modified. Then try using commas, non-defining relative clauses etc, to set off individual modifiers.
Sometimes breaking the rule can sound better than religiously adhering to it. What you are aiming for, after all, is clarity and fluidity, and avoiding ambiguity or unintended comedy. Use grammar as a guidebook, not as a catechism. We can leave that to the English-by-numbers brigade.

Some common problems with criticism of misplaced and dangling modifiers

  • Words like dangling and participle are bandied around rather too freely.
  • Many examples, of dangling participles in particular, seem to be invented.
  • They are very rarely shown in context.
  • We aren't always told what the real problem is, only that they 'break the rules'.
  • Little or no distinction is made between cases which are clearly ambiguous or ridiculous, and those cases where there is absolutely no ambiguity, but where they simply offend the sensibilties of the purists.
  • The traditional rule is to move the modifier next to the word or phrase it's modifying. But this isn't always possible, especially where an element has more than one modifier, as in the Harry Potter example.
In a fascinating but rather detailed post at Language Log, which I've already referred to above, linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky reviews an article by a tradionalist grammarian, entitled 'Don't dangle you participles in public'. Of the fifteen 'Horrible Examples' presented by the original writer, Zwicky finds that only five actually involve participles, and only one of those in fact dangles. And talking about ambiguity, Zwicky says:
Telling writers to avoid potential ambiguities is pretty much telling them to give up writing entirely.

Related posts

Links - articles etc

Links - reference (mainly aimed at native speakers)

Links - exercises

Answers

  • Ex 1 - 1. g, 2. f, 3. h, 4. a, 5. c, 6. d, 7. e, 8. b, 9. j, 10. i
  • Ex 2 - 1. said, 2. Hilda, 3. the pleasant young woman, 4. Colonel Saunders
  • Ex 3 - 1. 2, 2. 4, 3. 1, 4. 3
  • Ex 4 - 1. They just said on the radio its going to rain., 2. When she was only five, Hilda's parents separated., 3. A pleasant young woman with a nose ring works there. She's named Rebecca., 4. Dressed in his pajamas, Colonel Saunders shot a tiger.
  • Ex 5 - 1. he was almost hit, 2. he was made to lie down, 3. he was running across the road, 4. he was tired out after his long walk, 5. almost hit him while he was running across the road, 6. made him lie down as he was tired out after his long walk
  • Ex 6 - 1. the machine should be regularly cleaned, 2. you should clean it regularly
  • Ex 7 - 1. he was taught to read and write, 2. she, 3. he was only four, 4. she was at primary school, 5. he was the only gay in the village, 6. I intend, 7. she was cleaning the oven, 8. she was out doing the shopping
  • Ex 8 - 1. c, 2. a, c, 3. a, c, 4. a, d, 5. d, 6. b, c, 7. c, d, 8. a, c, 9. a, d, 10. a, d
  • Ex 9a - 1. it, 2. there, 3. there, 4. it, 5. it, 6. there
  • Ex 9b - 1. considered, 2. speaking, 3. Supposing, 4. Taking, 5. Given, 6. Judging

Printer friendly post

You can make a teacher copy with answers by clicking on 'Show All'. Make sure you 'Clear All' before printing student copies. Or you can print normally and the answers will appear on a separate page (Page 23). The lesson is on Pages 1-22. I strongly recommend doing a Print Preview first. You might want to change your margins and you certainly won't want to print every page.

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