Let Us Not Dangle!

We’d wager that most people are familiar with the phrases “dangling modifier” and “dangling participle.” We’d also wager that there are a lot of people who don’t know what they mean.

Here’s an example of a dangling modifier.
“Stumbling past the tree, the roots tripped Jordan.”

What’s wrong with this sentence? Jordan was stumbling past the tree and the roots tripped him, right? That’s what most of us would deduce. However, the structure of the sentence implies otherwise.

The opening clause has no stated subject. Who was stumbling past the tree? We don’t know. We wait breathlessly to find out—tell us quickly! We expect to get the information soon in the rest of the sentence. We’re waiting for a subject.

And indeed the rest of the sentence gives us a subject immediately: the roots. Unfortunately, the subject of the second part of the sentence—the roots—is not the same as the implied subject of the opening clause—Jordan.

Thus we have a sentence that, structurally speaking, implies that the roots stumbled around the tree. Poetically speaking, we suppose that usage could be justified; but that’s not what the sentence is trying to convey.

So we have two choices. We can 1) state the subject clearly in both parts of the sentence: “Jordan was stumbling around the tree, and the roots tripped him”—or we can 2) make sure the implied subject in an opening clause matches the stated subject in what follows the clause: “Stumbling around the tree, Jordan was tripped by the roots.”

Got it?

2 Responses to “Let Us Not Dangle!”

  1. Chris says:

    You’re right, I have heard these…and did not quite know what they meant. This does a really good job of explaining what a dangling modifier is; what is a dangling participle then?

    • A dangling participle is a specific kind of dangling modifier. The example we gave in the post is actually a dangling participle. It’s when a verb phrase is acting as an adjective and has no noun, so it attaches to the closest noun–which is not the one that is meant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Go Top