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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writer Mag Column 3: Dangling modifiers

“Spot the loony": Dangling modifiers can be unintentionally funny

As a child in London, I was exposed to the crazy humor of Monty Python's Flying Circus. One of my favorite skits was "Spot the Looney" (spelled the British way), in which a news anchor exhorted viewers to examine various video clips and then locate the people who were nuts. As expected, most of the people in the skits were loonies. Now that I'm all grown up, I get to spot the loony almost every day—except that these loonies aren't people; they're sentences that contain dangling modifiers.

I remember a long-ago day when I first got to play this new version of "Spot the Loony." I read this sentence: "Freshly painted, the visitors to the museum enjoyed the reopened exhibit." An amusing thought that the visitors were freshly painted, but unlikely. What is likely, unfortunately, is that you've written similar dangling modifiers—lots of them. You've also probably read your fair share of unbalanced and loony sentences written by others. They're so common that if I want to find one, I just have to read something. The last eight or so novels I devoured—some from bestselling authors—contained at least one egregious dangler (also known as a misplaced modifier). Reading the work of famous writers, it's hard to believe that so many misplaced modifiers slip through (hint, hint).

Think back to your own childhood, during which you learned how to form grammatical sentences. All those years ago, you parsed sentences such as "The unbalanced man is waving his arms" and "Waving his arms, the unbalanced man disrupted traffic." You also learned about modifiers, which come in many forms, from a simple adjective (like "unbalanced") to more complicated phrases (like "freshly painted") and clauses (like "waving his arms"). "Unbalanced" modifies the noun "man," and the clause "waving his arms" modifies "the unbalanced man." We cannot play "Spot the Loony" in these sentences because they are grammatical. But don't worry; you'll get to play the game very soon.

A modifier becomes misplaced, and loony, when it describes the wrong word or phrase. Take this loony sentence: "Waving his arms, traffic was disrupted by the unbalanced man." The traffic wasn't waving its arms; traffic doesn't even have arms! Pick a modifier—any modifier—and it can dangle in a loony manner. Most dangling modifiers dangle at the beginning of a sentence—as with "freshly painted" in our first example. Let's see about these two modifiers: "paying attention to their sentence structure" and "as a diligent writer." Can you spot the loony?

First is this doozy:

"Paying attention to their sentence structure, it is important that writers don't create dangling modifiers."

Yikes! "It" is not what's paying attention; writers should be:

"Paying attention to their sentence structure, writers should double-check what comes after the introductory word, phrase or clause, because that's what the modifier describes."

Second comes this crazy sentence:

"As a diligent writer, there are several ways to avoid dangling your modifiers."

In this sentence, "there" is not a diligent writer; we're talking about a person who should be diligent:

"As a diligent writer, you must be careful not to inadvertently paint any museum visitors."

Paying attention … writers. Check. Modifier and modify-ee match. As a diligent writer … you. Check.

Honestly, though, it doesn't matter where the modifier is or what its exact components are. You just have to worry about catching it. And that's the hard part, because when you're accidentally writing a dangling modifier, it seems right. You know what you mean, but it comes out all wrong on the page. Misplaced modifiers creep into your prose when you're not paying attention. If you've been staring out the window instead of watching your modifiers, you need to do something about it. You need to imagine you're on a British TV show from the 1970s and play "Spot the Loony."

The way to play the updated version of this game is to pay attention to words, phrases and clauses at the beginning of your sentences. You need to train yourself to notice these. At first you may want to simply circle them—or you can underline them, highlight them, decorate them with glitter. However you want to make them stand out is fine with me. Just spot them. One clue to keep in mind is that a modifier at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma. Once you've found a modifier at the beginning of a sentence and you've found a comma, you need to ask yourself, "What does this modifier describe?" The answer to that question must be the next thing that appears in the sentence; the item being modified follows the comma. You need to question everything that follows your circles, highlights or glitter. Does the right word come after your modifier? It does? Yippee! Your credibility is intact.

And what's a writer without credibility? You don't want readers to laugh at your confused sentence structure or to think you're imprecise. Dangling modifiers, like this one I found recently, can be hilarious: "Growing from a pile of sticks and mud, we found several stands of large mushrooms." How great would it be if people could grow from sticks and mud? Next time you're writing science fiction, go ahead and use that line. Otherwise, watch your grammar.

So how do you rewrite loonies that you've spotted? Sometimes, it's just a matter of placing the correct subject after the modifier and the comma. Other times, you'll have to rewrite the whole sentence and change the sentence structure. Let's rewrite the mushroom sentence. What's growing from a pile of sticks and mud? Well, we've already determined that "we" are not; "several stands of large mushrooms" are. You could move this subject after the comma: "Growing from a pile of sticks and mud, several stands of large mushrooms were visible." We could also change the sentence structure: "We found several stands of large mushrooms growing from a pile of sticks and mud."

Now it's time to "Spot the Loony" in earnest with 10 crazy Criminal Sentences. Dangling modifiers are so common—and so loony—that you need lots of practice. Send your rewrites to me at, and I'll confirm your status as a professional loony-spotter. Here are the loonies:

Criminal Sentence 1: "After working all day, the ground was approaching level."

Criminal Sentence 2: "At age 90, it is likely the judge will retire soon."

Criminal Sentence 3: "As a new mom, it's hard to get up every two to three hours."

Criminal Sentence 4: "Sitting in the vinyl chair of a waiting room, the settling dust of my family's collapse seemed unimportant."

Criminal Sentence 5: "If convicted, that gamble could cost her 16 to 22 years in prison."

Criminal Sentence 6: "Fool or not, in this crisis I miss him bitterly." (Hint: Spoken by a woman who has just called her husband a fool.)

Criminal Sentence 7: "Once unconscious, he hit her head on the floor."

Criminal Sentence 8: "Benefiting from early detection through a doctor-ordered MRI, the cancer is not life-threatening."

Criminal Sentence 9: "While traveling West in 1851, American Indians attacked her family."

Criminal Sentence 10: "Before pureeing, this combination makes a fine filling for turnovers."

Once you become used to noticing modifiers at the beginning of sentences, you can spot the loony whenever you're reading. Then you'll be a pro and can invite all your friends to play the game. And, if you feel like it, you can watch the original "Spot the Looney" skit on the Internet. You're guaranteed to laugh, as I do when I read dangling modifiers.

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