Sunday, May 20, 2012

Grammar Peeves: Dangling Modifiers

My post on Writing About Rape generated quite a few views, especially for a Thursday night post. This is not teaching me to avoid blogging when annoyed.

In my online perusal today, I came across The Purdue OWL, which has all kinds of information about how to properly write English. Those of you who come here for my grammar posts can find a wealth of information on that link, including exercises on grammar and usage.

One of the sections that caught my eye was on dangling modifiers. It's one of the pitfalls of passive voice, in that you can wind up with a disembodied force driving action in your story, leaving the reader confused.

A correct modifier is something like:
Stepping through the door, she dropped her keys in the bowl and said, "Hello?"
Stepping through the door, the keys fell in the bowl with a clank as a voice called, "Hello?"  
The keys aren't stepping through the door, and the fact that a person is present is only implied. Granted, the reader will figure out that the keys aren't stepping anywhere, thanks to context, but why make a reader do that work in the first place? It's rude and off-putting. You want your reader to feel challenged wondering, "What happens next?", not, "What did she mean?"

There is an entire series of books I gave up on reading because of missed modifiers. Actions happened, then an inanimate object or disembodied force took up the rest of the sentence. Worst, people would apparently glare at themselves before speaking. ("Giving her a stern look, she said to him, 'I think it's perfectly rational.'" Bleah.)

The best way to recognize these in your own writing is to pause at commas. Do you have this kind of compound sentence, where one thing logically follows another? If so, ask yourself, what's the subject of the sentence? You can have a sentence with a noun in it that isn't the subject: see my first example. Read the sentence again to determine who has a verb attached, and if that person (or object) is who you meant to be acting in the sentence. If it's incorrect, fix it. That's usually as easy as breaking it up into two sentences, combining them into one statement without the comma, or moving the subject in to appear sooner.

I don't run into a lot of professionally-published books with dangling modifiers, thank goodness. When I do, though, I find it off-putting enough to make me question the writing ability of the author, and whether there's anything else wrong with the narrative.


  1. I recently read a book in which the author did that ALL the time. Drove me bonkers, it did. Also was self-published, and the kind of thing a good beta reader and/or copy editor could have taken care of right quick. Oddly, it didn't ruin the story for me, but it was distracting.

    1. I definitely recognize that I care a lot more about grammar issues, and am therefore more easily distracted by them. Still, it seems disrespectful, to not learn the basic building blocks and make people figure things out because you couldn't be bothered.

      I steer clear of self-published books just because so few of them have been thoroughly edited, and I get stuck on errors.