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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Fishing for dangling modifiers

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see dangling modifiers (a PowerPoint exercise).


I was sitting on a dock in a pretty little bay, my fishing line of no apparent interest to any living creature other than me, when my early morning reverie was broken by the sputter of an approaching fishing boat.

"Hey, Doc, remember me?" called a man as he cut his engine and drifted toward the dock.

"Indeed I do," I said. "You’re the man I’ve been trying to cure of dangling modifiers. Are you having another relapse?"

"Hope you don’t mind," he said. "You didn’t seem to be doing much there."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I mean, sitting in my boat, you looked like you were sleeping instead of fishing."

"I see. Well, let’s go to work. Which of the following sentences contains a dangling modifier?"

"Wait a sec, Doc. Nature calls."

He grabbed his fishing pole and reeled in a two-pound walleye.

"OK, shoot," he said. "But first remind me: What am I looking for?"

"A dangling modifier is a modifying word or phrase that fails to connect sensibly with the thing it modifies.

"Compare, for example, ‘Sitting in my boat, you looked like you were sleeping’ with ‘Sitting in my boat, I thought you were sleeping.’

"Do you see the problem? The modifying phrase sitting in my boat must connect with the thing it modifies – in this case I or the person sitting in the boat, not you or the person sitting on the dock."

"Hang on, Doc." He reached for his rod and pulled in a four-pound bronzeback.

"Love the way those guys jump. You were saying?"

"In other words, when the introductory element modifies something in the main part of the sentence, the first word after the comma must be the thing it modifies.

"Compare ‘When pickled, I think herring tastes like caviar’ with ‘When pickled, herring tastes like caviar to me.’"

"You’re a riot, Doc."

Suddenly his pole bent double.

"Keep talking," he said. "This one’s gonna take a while."

"You also can revise the introductory element so that it no longer modifies anything in the main part of the sentence.

"Compare, for example, ‘Sitting in my boat, you appeared to be sleeping’ with ‘From where I sat in my boat, you appeared to be sleeping.’ See the difference?"

"Whoa, baby!"

The line swirled back and forth in the water, and the boat began to move away from the dock.

"Better talk fast, Doc."

"OK. Which sentence contains a dangling modifier?

"Once plastered, you are ready to paint your walls.

"When well oiled, I find my door easy to open.

"When well stewed, you add the tomatoes to the pot."

He was now more than 50 feet from me. Whatever was on the end of his line was heading for deep water.

"All three dangle," he called.

"Excellent. Now revise the following sentence to eliminate the dangling modifier:

"Once loaded, you are ready to launch the program."

"Once loaded, the program is ready to be launched?"

"Or?" I said.

"Once you have loaded the program, you are ready to launch it?"


"Thanks, Doc! Hope your luck improves there."

"Oh, I’m doing fine," I said. "I’ve been throwing them back as fast as I catch them."




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