Dangling Modifiers Don’t Have the Right Word to Modify

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Two weeks ago, I gave examples of misplaced modifiers. Today we’ll look at examples of dangling modifiers: phrases or clauses that are not logically related to the words they modify. They jar and confuse readers.

Participial phrases can be dangling modifiers. Watch out for those -ing verb forms.

Examples

1. Confusing: Listening for the cat, the feline scratched the door.

This says the feline was listening for the cat. Unlike misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers take more work to fix.

Clear: While I listened for the cat, the feline scratched the door.

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2. Confusing: Taking photos of the barn, my camera fell into manure.

Here, my camera was taking photos of the barn.

Clear: I snapped photos of the barn. When I stumbled, I dropped my camera, and it fell into manure.

3. Confusing:  Looking at the sea, a ship battled the waves.

This sounds like the ship looked at the sea.

Clear:  Jim looked at the sea. A ship battled the waves.

Not all Dangling modifiers are participial phrases. Sometimes adjectives have no noun or pronoun to modify.

Examples

1. Confusing: Tired, the bed was inviting.

Because no person is mentioned, the bed was tired?

 Clear:  Tired, I wanted to crawl under the bed’s covers.

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2. Confusing: Wary, guns were drawn.

Hmm. Guns were wary.

Clear:  Wary, police officers unholstered their guns.

Or how about an adverbial phrase.

3. Confusing: After a few unsteady steps, the dish flew from Gordon’s hand.

Here, the dish took a few unsteady steps.

Clear: After a few unsteady steps, Gordon tripped, and the dish he held flew from his hand.

Opening modifying phrases need to have something to modify in a sentence, or they modify something else.

Can you share a humorous example of a dangling modifier?

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Zoe McCarthy’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

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6 Questions to Ask to Take Your Paragraphs from Blah to Ah

“I huff and puff and struggle with every sentence, paragraph and page – sometimes every word as well.— Aidan Chambers

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image by Openicons

Ask these 6 questions about your paragraphs. I’ll use the following paragraph as an example.

1Before the fateful telephone call, Ella put cut up peaches on a baking sheet. 2She thought Cal would be glad she’d made dried peaches this winter when he ate them. 3She opened the oven door, after the she checked that the oven was up to the low heat needed, and put the baking sheet in. 4She heard her cell on the counter go off. 5She thought it was Cal calling. 6He was probably ready for her to drive over to the school and pick him up. 7She answered her cell.

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image by szjeno09190

Question 1: Will the reader feel as if she’s inside the character’s point-of-view?

  • When the author mentions the future fateful call (sentence 1), he takes us out of Ella’s point of view and lessens our later surprise.
  • He also intrudes and tells us that Ella thinks (2 & 5) and hears (4). In her point-of-view, Ella would simply think and hear.

Question 2: Have you varied opening-sentence words, and do you end sentences with words that give readers a sense of the sentences’ meaning?

  • Five sentences start with she. Repetitive.
  • Each ending word in sentences 2, 3, 4, and 6 leave the reader with no gist of the sentences’ meanings (them, in, off, up).

Question 3: Are actions ordered as Ella experiences them?

  • In Ella’s point of view, she couldn’t know yet that a fateful phone call would soon occur (1).
  • We learn Ella checked whether the oven was up to heat, after she opened the oven door (3).

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image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

Question 4: Does too much action description slow the pace?

  • Do we need to know Ella checked the heat and opened the door (3)? These actions say too much about putting peaches in the oven and slow the story.

Question 5: Can you find better descriptive words and reduce wordy phrases?

  • Drab verbs: be, ate (2); put (4); and go (4)
  • Wordiness: would be glad, when he ate them (2); up to the low heat needed, go off (4); and to drive over to the school (6).

Question 6: Are sentences confusing?

  • Does sentence 2 mean Cal will be glad this winter, or did Ella make the dried fruit this winter?

A Better Rewrite:

image by domeckopol
image by domeckopol

Ella arranged peach slices on a baking sheet. Cal would appreciate her efforts when he snacked on the sweet dried fruit during cold winter days. As she slid the sheet into the oven, her cell on the counter played its jazzy tune. Maybe that was Cal, ready to come home from football practice. She wiped sticky juice from her hands and grabbed the phone.

Note:

  • Arranged, appreciate, slid, played, and grabbed are strong verbs.
  • Opening-sentence words are varied.
  • Baking sheet, winter days, jazzy tune, football practice, and phone all leave us with an aspect of what the sentences are about.
  • The author never intrudes, and we’re in the “now” in Ella’s thoughts and actions.
  • The upbeat actions and descriptions will increase the impact of the “fateful call.”
  • The unedited paragraph is 90 words. The second is 64 with more colorful description.

Use these 6 questions to polish dull paragraphs. Click to tweet.

Can you improve the rewrite?