Trending Topic: Dangling Modifiers

When I think of dangling modifiers (modifiers without a clear target in a sentence), I usually think of clause-modifying verbal phrases, but other types of modifiers can end up “dangling” too, sowing confusion or, at the very least, silliness.

In this post, I share some examples I saw in the Facebook “trending topics” section one day as I was idly wasting time on the internet. Since Facebook’s “trending topics” headlines are written either by an algorithm or a very rushed human writer who may have no — or only indifferent — training in the art, they seem to have a chronic problem with dangling modifiers.

Prepositional phrases

The first sentence is ambiguously constructed in such a way that it sounds as if Bill Cosby might be giving his deposition at the Playboy Mansion. That seems unlikely.

In the latter, the writer unintentionally creates the impression that poor Dick Van Dyke has been stuck in that radio interview for decades, like the Knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.


Both of those examples involve prepositional phrases. Prepositions tell us the manner in which things are happening by providing location and time signals. Think of all the ways a cat can be situated in relation to a bed. For example (prepositions in boldface type), the cat can be/go in, on, above, under, through, beside, before, after, inside, outside, against, past, outside, alongside, or between (the sheets of) a bed. And this can happen during or an earthquake, before the cat has had its breakfast, after you told it to leave your bed alone because it has its own damn bed, until the cat decides to go chase invisible dust motes, throughout the better part of your day, etc.

So how would I re-write these? Well, including all of the information in the Cosby example is tricky — there are a lot of prepositions there for a reason. I’d probably go with something like, “Alleged Playboy Mansion Sexual Assault: Comedian Gives Deposition Friday” or “Friday, Comedian Gives Deposition on Alleged Playboy Mansion Sexual Assault.” The former requires the use of a second colon, but it’s clear.

The Dick Van Dyke headline is easy to revise: “In Radio Interview, 90 Year Old Actor Gives Advice on Growing Old.” Moving the prepositional phrase to the beginning and adding a comma makes all the difference, and now we don’t worry so much about the poor man wasting away in front of a microphone. If you aren’t sure what you can do, play around with the placement of your dangling modifier — sometimes it just needs to be tucked in the right place to quit dangling around.

Here’s another example of a dangling modifier in a trending topic:

wife of jogger

In this sentence, it at first sounds as if it was the “wife of jogger” who was killed on the Texas trail. Reading on, we realize that can’t be the case, because you can’t be killed and then take your own life. The reader then has to backtrack and reconstruct the meaning: a woman took her own life, according to police. This woman was the wife of a jogger killed on a trail in Texas. (You may be thinking, “what’s the big deal? The reader can figure it out.” To which I say, “fuck that noise. The reader should be able to understand you the first time.”)

Here, the problem modifier is an adjective clause: who was killed on Texas trail. These trip writers up because they are sometimes set off with commas, and sometimes not. For example:

My brother, who lives in New York, doesn’t own a car.

My brother who lives in New York doesn’t own a car.

Commas aren’t there for shits and giggles. Compare those two sentences: in the first, I’m telling you that my brother doesn’t own a car, and he lives in New York (which explains why he doesn’t need a car). In the latter, I’m identifying which brother I’m talking about. Now, in real life, I only have one brother, but if I had more than one, I would on occasion need to specify which brother I’m talking about. In sentences like this, the lack of comma does it for me. The adjective clause here is a restrictive clause.

Commas aren’t there for shits and giggles.

Now, you may have heard that “restrictive clauses are essential and non-restrictive clauses are nonessential” and I think that’s a bullshit way of explaining things, because if it’s not essential you probably should probably be editing it out. What restrictive clauses show which thing you’re talking about, and non-restrictive clauses serve other purposes, like providing some additional information, which might indeed be essential to the meaning or purpose of the sentence as a whole.

So how would I re-write that headline? One alternative would be to revise the headline to read “Woman, wife of jogger killed on Texas trail, kills self, police say.” Now the “wife of jogger” bit is a noun phrase appositive modifying “woman.”

Alternatively, you could go with “Wife of jogger killed on Texas trail kills self, police say.” That’s cleaner, though it leaves the problem of defining a person in terms of their relationship to another, instead of treating her as a person in her own right, but that’s a rhetorical and sociological problem, rather than a purely grammatical one. As writers, I believe we have a responsibility to consider the contexts of our texts, but of course our first and foremost responsibility is to be clear. Otherwise, we’re not communicating at all, just screaming gibberish into the void. Further examples of this can also, of course, be found on Facebook.

Most writers can catch and correct dangling modifiers, even if they don’t know what a dangling modifier is — the writing will sound “wrong” and on the second pass the writer can usually revise the sentence in accordance with what they really meant to say, using the principles of good sentence focus, thus solving the problem.


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