Bad Grammar Illustrated: The Perils of Dangling Modifiers

February 1, 2017

Dangling modifiers sound wonderfully off-color. Say it out loud. “Dangling modifiers.” Did you giggle? I did! It’s easy to laugh and move on without really understanding what this grammatical peril is, but you do so at your own, well, peril.


Put simply, a dangling modifier is a word or phrase that describes something in a sentence, but it’s not clear what that something is. For instance, “The monster loves to eat people on trains” could mean a few very different things about how the monster loves to eat people.


The monster loves to eat people when he is riding on the train. 


The monster loves to eat people who ride on trains.


The monster loves to pile people on top of a train and eat a big ol’ train-people crostini.


See how all those people are in peril for their very cartoon lives? I told you peril would happen! But it doesn’t have to be this way. This particular monster is awoken only when modifiers get dangly in sentences that are about him. You can lull the monster to sleep through clear speech and the strict abidance of grammar rules, thus saving all the poor cartoon people’s lives. Heroic! All you need to do is make sure each part of every sentence about the monster is specifically modified.

The monster loves to eat people when he is riding on the train.

The monster loves to eat people who ride on trains.

The monster loves to pile people on top of a train and eat a big ol’ train-people crostini. Crunchy!



In each of these sentences, the phrases about the monster's dietary predilections are explained specifically, leaving nothing open to interpretation. And in this case, such clarity is a matter of cartoon life and death.


Oh look! The monster is nodding off.


Huzzah! The day has been saved by good grammar.


* Like "panini," "crostini" is a plural noun that doesn't end in s (think of "mice" and "feet"). "Panini" and "crostini" are Italian words for different ways of serving meat and cheese on bread. Their misuse as singular nouns has become so ubiquitous in English speech and on American menus that using the proper singular words "panino" and "crostino" sounds at worst like a mistake, and at best like pretense. I choose to go with the mistaken version in my example above, because it sounds more natural to English ears and affords me the chance to point out this misuse and feel superior. Jeez, I hope that doesn't wake up the monster . . . 


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