To Beat a Grammarian: Dangling Modifiers

To Beat a Grammarian: Dangling Modifiers


As a writing teacher to ESL students, I don’t much encounter this problem as often as teachers state-side might. My students follow the patterns they’ve learned extensively and try more for quantity than quality. That being said, I do prep all my students with something my university professor told me: good writing is not large words or long sentences. Good writing is getting the most ideas down on paper with the least amount of words possible.

And I know, it’s a hard rule to practice; no less teach. In this way, modifiers are extremely useful. They chop a lot of flack from one’s writing. So let’s take a look.

Running to school, Charles noticed the empty streets. Had school been canceled?

The modifier here is ‘running to school.’ When using a modifier, it is implied that a time clause begins it, like when or while. The other thing that most draw from it is that for both clauses, the subjects are the same. And having the modifier at the beginning of the sentence this is understood clearly; however, sometimes when it is placed at the end, things get a little tricky.

Charles noticed the empty streets, running to school.

Now it appears the streets are running to school. And…you may say that is ridiculous. No one would ever get such a thing confused. And you are right. However, the reader will initially have to stop to make that deduction, and that slight pause throws off the reader’s momentum. Any action that destroys momentum is disastrous because it gives the reader time to decide whether they should keep reading your story or not. Don’t give them that opportunity.

Now check out this common mistake.

Charles noticed a dog, running to school.


Now it is worse. A dog can run to school, so in this situation, if you meant Charles, put the modifier at the beginning of the sentence. Not only will it clear up misunderstandings, it will also create sentence variation, as many newbie writers tend to set the subject as the first word in every sentence. But if you did mean for it to be attached to the dog, fix it by changing it into an adjective clause. Like so:

Charles noticed a dog that was running to school.

The hardest ones to notice—or at least for me—are the dangling modifiers that have different subjects anyways. Every manuscript of mine has one or two. When in the focus of writing, I tend not to notice them. And even after many rereads, they still go overlooked. Like this one:

Hearing the bell, there was nothing left to do.

Here, technically, there is no subject for the ‘hearing the bell’ to attach to. Changing it to a preposition clause is best.

With the bell ringing, there was nothing left to do.

In the end, modifiers aren’t that hard to get ahold of, but if you haven’t experienced them a lot, it can be troubling. Keep your eye out for them, for like I intimated, a dangling modifier is one of the worst possible errors to leave in your writing. Grammarians are the quickest to snap at them.


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