A hovering dangling modifier

Dangling modifiers may seem pretty harmless, unlikely even to be noticed except by editors and eagle-eyed readers. But at their worst they can evoke images so silly or outlandish as to invite ridicule – or at least editorial protest.

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage calls danglers “a venial sin at most” and says they are “common, old, and well-established in English literature”. It offers examples from Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among others:

. . . sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me (Hamlet)

. . . wanting to be alone with his family, the presence of a stranger superior to Mr. Yates must have been irksome. (Mansfield Park)

The participial phrases that open these examples obviously refer to “me” and “Mr Yates”, respectively, but grammatically they modify “a serpent” and “the presence of a stranger…”. They are left “dangling” away from their intended subjects.

The problem is that readers habitually associate a participle with whatever is right beside it, so they may be misled by the mismatch. A striking example appears in Paul Roberts’ Understanding Grammar, albeit apparently invented to illustrate the point: “Flying low, a herd of cattle could be seen.”

Modifiers can make mischief by dangling at the end of a sentence too. Here’s a line borrowed from an earlier post on anaphoric ambiguity:

From Llandrindod you proceed along the lovely valley of the Ithon, growing more beautiful as you proceed.

As the Columbia Guide to Standard American English notes, “It’s the funny ones that cause trouble.”

When the meaning is plain and no genuine ambiguity arises, you might get away with dangling a modifier. But it’s best to be aware of the potential pitfalls, and to recast the sentence if you judge it necessary.

In a book I read recently there was one I’d have fixed, given the chance, for reasons that will be obvious (emphasis added):

The grieving Isis searched long and hard for her husband’s body. She eventually located it and brought it back to Egypt. Hidden in the marshes, Isis hovered over the body in the form of a hawk, and became pregnant with their son, Horus. (Great Civilisations, edited by Brenda Ralph Lewis)

20 Responses to A hovering dangling modifier

  1. gill francis says:

    Hi Stan,
    Can I link this to a post I wrote on dangling modifiers last month:
    It is mostly about how they can be inadvertently humorous; one sentence I considered was “A team … found the crabs using a remotely operated submersible”. Your post goes further into the question of ambiguity and real confusion – very interesting!

  2. John Cowan says:

    I distinguish between merely misplaced modifiers like “When walking down the street, a large bundle of books is cumbersome to me” (the modifier is attached to the wrong thing) and true danglers like “When walking down the street, the sun came out” (where the true referent is only implied by the context). The second type seem much worse to me.

  3. Stan says:

    Gill: Yes, of course. I enjoyed your post, and I love the example of finding crabs using a submersible! Some danglers would certainly be suitable for use in educational contexts, but it would depend on their structure, the audience, and how readily the teacher can explain what’s happening grammatically.

    John: I agree, the complete omission of the intended referent makes the dangler more dangly and problematic. Some books also treat the modifiers differently according to type (dangling gerunds, infinitives, present/past-participials, etc.), but I decided not to get into that in this post.

  4. sciencebase says:

    The classic when I was editing at the RSC was “After standing over night in the refrigerator, we took the sample and carried out a reaction…”

  5. languagehat says:

    As the Columbia Guide to Standard American English notes, “It’s the funny ones that cause trouble.”

    Cause trouble in what sense? I’m willing to accept that there may, very occasionally, be danglers in the wild that actually cause momentary confusion and/or amusement, but the vast majority of supposed examples held up to appall students and others are, in your words, invented to illustrate the point. I’m not saying students shouldn’t be alerted to the potential problem, but I suspect more attention is given this edge case than it deserves — attention that could be directed instead to more common problems like mushy prose and shameless plagiarism.

    • Stan says:

      Cause trouble in that they interfere with a smooth reading experience, I suppose. They’re distracting when they’re funny, and can disrupt the tone – as M-W says, at worst a venial sin, but still: when you’re making a serious point, you don’t want to inadvertently generate surreal comedy.

      The fact that in five years of blogging this is the first time I’ve discussed danglers can serve to mark how relatively minor a problem I think they are. But I think distracting examples in the wild would be much more frequent if editors weren’t habitally removing them. I see a few a week.

  6. Great blog! I will visit often. Thanks.

  7. […] behind the word box; and Stan Carey collided with common sense and usage. On his own blog, Stan dangled some modifiers. […]

  8. gristgame says:

    I have alot to learn from you! I am so happy I stumbled upon your blog.

  9. The same problem occurs in Russian. Now I know what to call them in English – thanks!

    The most famous example in Russian was seemingly deliberately invented by Chekhov, by the way: “Driving up to the station, my hat flew off.” But it sounds even more jarring in Russian because the present active participle does not have to be attached to a pronoun and what I have rendered in English as “my hat flew off” is literally “by me flew hat”, with the pronoun in the genitive case, rather than the nominative, which it would need to be to modify the participle.

    • Stan says:

      Ian: Glad to have supplied a name! And thanks for the Chekhov example, which I’d never heard of (unless I read it years ago without noticing).

  10. […] don’t have a zero-tolerance policy towards danglers. As I’ve noted before (‘A hovering dangling modifier’), the construction is old and well-established in literature. But there’s a danger the […]

  11. […] care less isn’t wrong – it’s an idiomatic variant. Whom is on the way out in most contexts. Dangling participles aren’t so bad. The Oxford comma is just a style preference. Abbreviating words as single letters […]

  12. racheld says:

    Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    There seems to be nothing more humorous than a dangling modifier. I like this blogs examples of such occurrences in literature, such as Hamlet.

  13. Guest says:

    I have a copy of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary of English Usage published 1994 and I went to it looking for other examples from Shakespeare but could not find any, not even the one mentioned here.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The Shakespeare example is quoted in M-W’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, published in 2002. I had omitted that detail from the post and have added it now.

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