A Novelist’s Nightmare: Dangling Modifiers

don't let your writing turn your words upside-down on you! Say what you mean.

Don’t let your writing turn your words upside-down on you! Say what you mean.

Lately, I’ve been on a grammar and style binge, discussing various aspects of writing that can be pitfalls for novelists, bloggers, and journalists alike. Today, I’m continuing the trend with a post dedicated to dangling modifers, and in particular, dangling participles.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, in a post about my biggest grammar pet peeves, that the reasons dangling modifiers are a problem is that when you use them, you’re not actually saying what you think you’re saying.

To make matters worse, since you know what you mean to say, dangling participles can be particularly hard to catch in your own writing. When you read through your draft, your mind will automatically associate the offending gerund phrase with what you mean it to be describing, and not with the subject that, grammatically, it’s actually attached to.

What’s a gerund?

In case grammar jargon isn’t your thing, a gerund is a verb in “-ing” form. Walking, talking, reading, and writing are all gerunds. When we use a verb as the subject of a sentence in English, we can (and often) put that verb in gerund form.

  • Walking is fun.
  • Reading’s my favorite hobby.
  • Singing is a blast. I wish I were a better singer.

We can also gerunds as the subject of phrases that, in turn, describe a noun.

  • Walking to the store, he ran into his best friend.
  • Reading an uninteresting book in the library, the bored student found class time passing slowly.
  • Singing on the stage, she felt the adrenaline rushing through her.

When you have a gerund phrase, things become tricky. Especially when that phrase comes at the start of a sentence. You want to make sure it’s modifying the noun you mean it to modify.

Gerund Phrases Modify the Subject

I will never forget how much fun I had in seventh grade English class, learning about all the different kinds of phrases in the English language: how to identify them, and how to use them.

One of the most important things the teacher talked about was how a gerund phrase at the start of a sentence always modifies the subject of the sentence. Generally, this means the noun that immediately follows.

Thus, in the examples I gave above:

  • “He” is “walking to the store.”
  • “The bored student” is “reading an uninteresting book in the library.”
  • “She” is “singing on the stage.”

Problems arise when the sentences are arranged differently. What if I just assumed a subject, without stating it?

  • Stuck reading an uninteresting book in the library, class time passed slowly.

In that example, the gerund phrase, grammatically, is modifying “class time.” So, “Class time” is “stuck reading an uninteresting book in the library.” That’s not exactly what I meant to imply, though.

And that’s not the worst of it. Even when you do have the phrase’s intended noun in your sentence, you can slip up.

  • Singing on the stage, adrenaline rushed through her body.

Is she singing, or is the adrenaline? The way that’s written, adrenaline is.

There are other ways to have dangling modifiers, but in my experience, those are easier to find and to fix because they sound a bit absurd. I mean:

  • Open until ten o’clock, she ran to the store.
  • The student, old and dusty, picked up the tome.

Who would write that? Maybe someone would in a really hurried fluster, trying to get a word count goal on the final day of National Novel Writing Month. During the first edit, though, the chances an author wouldn’t catch something so obvious are pretty slim.

For me, I’ve found gerund phrases at the start of sentences are my worst dangling modifier offenders. That’s why I focused on those today.

I hope you found this post helpful! I’ve actually had more fun throwing this post together than I can remember in a while writing a post.

Are dangling modifiers an issue for you as well? Do they drive you nuts? Do you remember any funny examples from English class? Do share!

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18 responses to “A Novelist’s Nightmare: Dangling Modifiers

  1. angel7090695001

    I have learned a new word.

  2. My stepdaughter is like you – she loved grammar. The rest of the family hated it. She’d probably know a gerund and all the things you do and don’t do with it, but if I knew it, I promptly swept it out of my brain! But not the practicality of how to use it – that I know (although we don’t ever get this one perfect on the first pass!). πŸ˜€

    • isn’t it wonderful we don’t need to get it right on the first pass? haha! oh my gosh, I can’t imagine how poor my writing would be if I had to!!! and how stressful the whole process would become πŸ™‚

      I love your point, too, about knowing innately how things work. That’s how grammar works for most people. You don’t know terms or why, you just know what’s right because it sounds right.

  3. Get it. But now my head is hurting. This writing lark is harder than I thought.

  4. Helpful and golden πŸ™‚ Thanks again.

  5. Reblogged this on szantoanna76 and commented:
    hello

  6. Thanks for another interesting post. I so wish we’d learnt all these things at school. If anything, we were encouraged to write overly complex sentences to ‘make our writing more interesting’. As a result, our writing would get tied up in knots. I’d love to read something I wrote at school. I’d probably be horrified!

    On a different note, how great is the word gerund? I challenge everyone to use it today in a sentence!

    • hahaha! i love that word. πŸ™‚ and I avoid going back to reread some of the first essays I ever wrote for Spanish professors. That’s a bit different than English papers, but….

      The literary analysis is fine, but oh my gosh, I didn’t get Spanish grammar at that point nearly as well as I thought. It’s mortifying!

  7. This sort of thing annoys me but word cruft is what drives me crazy. I recall doing something like this in school but I was eight and so I didn’t care.

  8. Thanks for this post! It can be easy to forget these types of rules while deep in the writing trenches. Always good to have a reminder!

  9. I learned something new today, but now I’m nervous about leaving this comment. In school grammar and I didn’t really get along. I’m more of an intuitive writer, does it sound right, does it feel right, can I make it better.

    Thanks for the post, bookmarking and printing to stick on my wall.

    • You’re welcome Brian!!! And remember, you don’t have to be perfect with grammar to be a writer! Just make sure you have a good proofreader and editor. They are in charge of cleaning things up. Your job–the job of all of us authors–is just to learn grammar as well as you can.

  10. Pingback: How a Focused, Limited “Baby Edit” Can Help Improve A Writer’s Style | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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