Imagine, if you will, a half-empty parking lot. Now imagine a car in that lot parked diagonally across two spaces. Deliberately.
You’ve been around these parts long enough to know that the parking lot won’t fill up — not this time of year, anyway. You’re certain that one hogged-up parking space won’t be missed. But it still rubs you the wrong way, right?
That’s how I feel about danglers. They shouldn’t bother me as much as they do. In most cases, a dangler is a no-harm-done infraction. But I can’t help it. They get under my skin.
Consider, for example, this variation on a subject line that landed in my email inbox: “As a mother, my son is the most important thing to me.”
That’s about as harmless as grammar flubs get. No reader will struggle with this sentence. No one will find it unclear. But the glaring dangler offends my eye more than a Hummer with no parking placard sprawled across two handicapped spaces.
Don’t see the error? That’s probably a good thing because only an easily peeved person like me would want to shout out, “Your son isn’t a mother!”
“Dangler “is a catch-all term for any modifying element in a sentence that sits too far from the thing it’s modifying. Danglers are also called dangling modifiers and dangling modifying phrases.
A dangling participle, as we’ll see in a minute, is a specific type of dangler. But the term “dangler” encompasses all of them.
Often, a dangler is a phrase containing multiple words, like “as a mother.” Sometimes a dangler consists of a single word, like “disgusted” as in “Disgusted, Bryan’s eyes moved to the floor.”
When the single word is a verb participle in the form of an “ing” verb, it’s called a dangling participle. “Gagging, the odor overwhelmed Carrie.” When a phrase that includes a participle dangles, that, too, is called a dangling participle. “Gagging from the stench, the odor overwhelmed Carrie.”
In every case, the logical problem is the same: The position of the modifying word or phrase points to the wrong noun or pronoun. That happens because, in English, we expect a modifier to sit as close as possible to the thing it modifies.
For example, “As a mother, I know my son is the most important thing to me.” Here, the first word after “as a mother” is “I” — the mother herself. That’s how it’s done, from a syntactical standpoint, at least. But it’s not necessarily a great sentence.
So you can always find ways to say the same thing with different sentence structures. “I’m a mother and my son is the most important thing in my life.” In this case, we ditch the modifying phrase “as a mother” and replace it with a whole clause: “I’m a mother.”
By now, some of you may be noticing an even better way to improve this sentence by asking whether it’s even necessary to mention that the person talking is a mother. Clearly, anyone who says “my son” is a parent. Depending on the context, it may not be necessary to get any more specific than that.
Our second example dangles by suggesting that Bryan’s eyes are disgusted instead of Bryan himself: “Disgusted, Bryan’s eyes moved to the floor.”
Again, once you see the problem, solutions seem to present themselves: “Disgusted, Bryan looked at the floor.” “Disgusted, Bryan directed his eyes toward the floor.” “Bryan, disgusted, looked at the floor.”
As for “Gagging, the odor overwhelmed Carrie,” simple solutions include: “Gagging, Carrie was overwhelmed by the odor.” You could even make the main verb, “overwhelmed,” into a modifying phrase, then turn the former modifier into a verb: “Overwhelmed by the odor, Carrie gagged.”
Though none of the original sentences was likely to confuse the reader, certain readers, present company included, will appreciate your work better if you don’t let your modifiers dangle.