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)