Common Errors: Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
When a participial phrase, prepositional phrase, or other modifying unit is not placed next to the noun it describes, the resulting error is called a misplaced modifier. Consider these examples:
- Incorrect: Turning on the kitchen light, the woman surprised the thief in her nightgown.
Correct: Turning on the kitchen light, the woman in her nightgown surprised the thief.
- Incorrect: They bought a kitten for my brother called Shadow.
Correct: They bought a kitten called Shadow for my brother.
- Incorrect: The patient was referred to the physician with stomach pains.
Correct: The patient with stomach pains was referred to the physician.
Simple modifiers like only, almost, just, nearly, and barely often get used incorrectly because writers often put them in the wrong place.
Confusing: Tyler almost found fifty cents under the sofa cushions.
Repaired: Tyler found almost fifty cents under the sofa cushions.
How do you almost find something? Either you find it or you do not. The repaired sentence is much clearer.
Rewrite the following sentences to correct the misplaced modifiers:
- The young lady was walking the dog on the telephone.
- I heard that there was a robbery on the evening news.
- Uncle Louie bought a running stroller for the baby that he called “Speed Racer.”
- Rolling down the mountain, the explorer stopped the boulder with his powerful foot.
- We are looking for a babysitter for our precious six-year-old who doesn’t drink or smoke.
- The teacher served cookies to the children wrapped in aluminum foil.
- The mysterious woman walked toward the car holding an umbrella.
- We returned the wine to the waiter that was sour.
- Charlie spotted a stray puppy driving home from work.
- I ate nothing but a cold bowl of noodles for dinner.
A dangling modifier (or simply a dangler) is a word, phrase, or clause that describes something that has been left out of the sentence. When there is nothing that the word, phrase, or clause can modify, then the modifier is said to dangle.
Incorrect: Riding in the sports car, the world whizzed by.
Correct: As Jane was riding in the sports car, the world whizzed by.
In the incorrect sentence, riding in the sports car is dangling. The reader is left wondering who is riding in the sports car. The writer must tell the reader.
Incorrect: Walking home at night, the trees looked like spooky aliens.
Correct: As Jonas was walking home at night, the trees looked like spooky aliens.
Correct: The trees looked like spooky aliens as Jonas was walking home at night.
In the incorrect sentence walking home at night is dangling. Who is walking home at night? Jonas. Note that there are two different ways the dangling modifier can be corrected.
Incorrect: To win the spelling bee, Luis and Gerard should join our team.
Correct: If we want to win the spelling bee, Luis and Gerard should join our team.
In the incorrect sentence, to win the spelling bee is dangling. Who wants to win the spelling bee? We do.
Following these steps will help you correct a dangling modifier:
Look for a modifying phrase at the beginning of your sentence and underline the noun that immediately follows it. The example below opens with a participial phrase, highlighted in yellow:
Example: Painting for three hours at night, the kitchen was finally finished.
If the modifying phrase does not describe the underlined noun, then you have a dangler. In this example, the kitchen is the room that was painted, but who did the painting? A noun referring to that person should immediately follow the participial phrase:
Correction: Painting for three hours at night, Maggie finally finished the kitchen.
Since Maggie did the painting, her name follows the participial phrase.
Rewrite the following the sentences to correct the dangling modifiers:
- Bent over backward, the posture was very challenging.
- Making discoveries about new creatures, this is an interesting time to be a biologist.
- Walking in the dark, the picture fell off the wall.
- Playing a guitar in the bedroom, the cat was seen under the bed.
- Packing for a trip, a cockroach scurried down the hallway.
- While looking in the mirror, the towel swayed in the breeze.
- While driving to the veterinarian’s office, the dog nervously whined.
- The priceless painting drew large crowds when walking into the museum.
- Piled up next to the bookshelf, I chose a romance novel.
- Chewing furiously, the gum fell out of my mouth.
Rewrite the following paragraph correcting all the misplaced and dangling modifiers:
I bought a fresh loaf of bread for my sandwich shopping in the grocery store. Wanting to make a delicious sandwich, the mayonnaise was thickly spread. Placing the cold cuts on the bread, the lettuce was placed on top. I cut the sandwich in half with a knife turning on the radio. Biting into the sandwich, my favorite song blared loudly in my ears. Humming and chewing, my sandwich went down smoothly. Smiling, my sandwich will be made again, but next time I will add cheese.
- Misplaced and dangling modifiers make sentences difficult to understand.
- Misplaced and dangling modifiers distract the reader.
- There are several effective ways to identify and correct misplaced and dangling modifiers.
Parallelism is the use of similar structure in related words, clauses, or phrases. It creates a sense of rhythm and balance within a sentence. As readers, we often correct faulty parallelism—a lack of parallel structure—intuitively because an unbalanced sentence sounds awkward and poorly constructed. Read the following sentences aloud:
Faulty parallelism: Kelly had to iron, do the washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Faulty parallelism: Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and to have good eyesight.
Faulty parallelism: Ali prefers jeans to wearing a suit.
All of these sentences contain faulty parallelism. Although they are factually correct, the construction is clunky and confusing. In the first example, three different verb forms are used. In the second and third examples, the writer begins each sentence by using a noun (coordination, jeans), but ends with a phrase (to have good eyesight, wearing a suit). Now read the same three sentences that have correct parallelism.
Correct parallelism: Kelly had to do the ironing, washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Correct parallelism: Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and good eyesight.
Correct parallelism: Ali prefers wearing jeans to wearing a suit.
When these sentences are written using parallel structure, they sound more aesthetically pleasing because they are balanced. Repetition of grammatical construction also minimizes the work the reader has to do to decode the sentence.
A simple way to check for parallelism in your writing is to make sure you have paired nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, prepositional phrases with prepositional phrases, and so on. Underline each element in a sentence and check that the corresponding element uses the same grammatical form.
Creating Parallelism Using Coordinating Conjunctions
When you connect two phrases or clauses using a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), make sure that the same grammatical structure is used on each side of the conjunction. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like to listen to music and talking to friends on the phone.
Correct parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like listening to music and talking to friends on the phone.
The first sentence uses two different verb forms (to listen, talking). In the second sentence, the grammatical construction on each side of the coordinating conjunction (and) is the same, creating a parallel sentence.
The same technique should be used for joining items or lists in a series.
Faulty parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lowering workers’ wages.
Correct parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lower workers’ wages.
The first sentence contains two items that use the same verb construction (reduce, cut) and a third item that uses a different verb form (lowering). The second sentence uses the same verb construction in all three items, creating a parallel structure.
Revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using coordinating conjunctions:
- Mr. Holloway enjoys reading and to play his guitar on weekends.
- The doctor told Mrs. Franklin that she should either eat less or should exercise more.
- Breaking out of the prison compound, the escapees moved carefully, quietly, and were quick on their feet.
- Deal with a full inbox first thing in the morning, or by setting aside short periods of time in which to answer email queries.
Creating Parallelism Using Than or As
When you are making a comparison, the two items being compared should have a parallel structure. Comparing two items without using parallel structure can lead to confusion about what is being compared. Comparisons frequently use the words than or as, and the items on each side of these comparison words should be parallel. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is more difficult than a pool.
Correct parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is more difficult than swimming in a pool.
In the first sentence, the elements before the comparison word (than) are not equal to the elements after the comparison word. It appears that the writer is comparing an action (swimming) with a noun (a pool). In the second sentence, the writer uses the same grammatical construction to create a parallel structure. This clarifies that an action is being compared with another action.
To correct some instances of faulty parallelism, it may be necessary to add or delete words in a sentence.
Faulty parallelism: A brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
Correct parallelism: Going for a brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
Correct parallelism: A brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as a run.
Revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using than or as:
- I would rather work at a second job to pay for a new car than a loan.
- How you look in the workplace is just as important as your behavior.
- The firefighter spoke more of his childhood than he talked about his job.
- Indian cuisine is far tastier than the food of Great Britain.
- Jim’s opponent was as tall as Jim and he carried far more weight.
Creating Parallelism Using Correlative Conjunctions
A correlative conjunction is a paired conjunction that connects two equal parts of a sentence and shows the relationship between them. Common correlative conjunctions include the following:
not only…but also
Correlative conjunctions should follow the same grammatical structure to create a parallel sentence. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor can we take evasive action.
Correct parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor take evasive action.
When using a correlative conjunction, the words, phrases, or clauses following each part should be parallel. In the first sentence, the construction of the second part of the sentence does not match the construction of the first part. In the second sentence, omitting needless words and matching verb constructions create a parallel structure. Sometimes, rearranging a sentence corrects faulty parallelism.
Faulty parallelism: It was both a long movie and poorly written.
Correct parallelism: The movie was both long and poorly written.
To see examples of parallelism in use, read some of the great historical speeches by rhetoricians such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Notice how they use parallel structures to emphasize important points and to create a smooth, easily understandable oration.
Revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using correlative conjunctions:
- The cyclist owns both a mountain bike and has a racing bike.
- The movie not only contained lots of action, but also it offered an important lesson.
- My current job is neither exciting nor is it meaningful.
- Jason would rather listen to his father than be taking advice from me.
- We are neither interested in buying a vacuum cleaner nor do we want to utilize your carpet cleaning service.
- Parallelism creates a sense of rhythm and balance in writing by using the same grammatical structure to express equal ideas.
- Faulty parallelism occurs when elements of a sentence are not balanced, causing the sentence to sound clunky and awkward.
- Parallelism may be created by connecting two clauses or making a list using coordinating conjunctions; by comparing two items using than or as; or by connecting two parts of a sentence using correlative conjunctions.
An appositive is a word or group of words that describes or renames a noun or pronoun. Incorporating appositives into your writing is a useful way of combining sentences that are too short and choppy. Take a look at the following example:
Original sentences: Harland Sanders began serving food for hungry travelers in 1930. He is Colonel Sanders or “the Colonel.”
Revised sentence: Harland Sanders, “the Colonel,” began serving food for hungry travelers in 1930.
In the revised sentence, “the Colonel” is an appositive because it renames Harland Sanders. To combine two sentences using an appositive, drop the subject and verb from the sentence that renames the noun and turn it into a phrase. Note that in the previous example, the appositive is positioned immediately after the noun it describes. An appositive must come directly before or after the noun to which it refers.
Appositive after noun: Scott, a poorly trained athlete, was not expected to win the race.
Appositive before noun: A poorly trained athlete, Scott was not expected to win the race.
Unlike adjective clauses and participial phrases, which may be restrictive or nonrestrictive, appositives are always nonrestrictive, and thus they are always set off by commas. A comma is placed both before and after the appositive.
Rewrite the following sentence pairs as one sentence using any of the techniques you have learned in this section:
- Baby sharks are called pups. Pups can be born in one of three ways.
- The Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest ocean. It extends from the Arctic in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south.
- Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. He is a champion swimmer.
- Ashley introduced her colleague Dan to her husband, Jim. She speculated that the two of them would have a lot in common.
- Cacao is harvested by hand. It is then sold to chocolate-processing companies at the Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange.