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Pardon Me, But Your Modifier Is Dangling

We’ve all heard the term “dangling modifier,” but what is a dangling modifier?

A dangling modifier is a misplaced phrase that seems, inappropriately, to modify a sentence, usually because you have written the sentence in a passive tense or left out the object of the phrase. It’s called a “dangling” modifier because it’s left dangling in the sentence, its object nowhere to be seen.

For example, if I write,

Turning the corner, the hermit’s hut was before me,

then the phrase “turning the corner” appears to modify “the hermit’s hut.” The sentence reads as if the hermit’s hut did the corner-turning!

How would I fix this? Follow the dangling modifier up with a reference to the person, animal, object, or what have you that the modifier is about. For example, I would fix my above example in this way:

Turning the corner, I saw the hermit’s hut before me.

I rewrote the sentence in an active voice, and I also immediately followed the action of turning the corner with a reference to the character who turned the corner.

Let’s try another example:

Listing to one side, the wake of the great sea serpent rocked the longship.

Sea serpent.Is the wake of the sea serpent listing to the side? No, the longship is, but you wouldn’t know this from the example.

To fix it, once again I must follow the introductory phrase with its object.

Listing to one side, the longship rocked in the wake of the sea serpent.

As usual, don’t worry about dangling modifiers as you’re drafting, but when you’re rewriting and revising, keep a lookout for these suckers. Their comical effect can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing.

How to Avoid Sexism in Writing

Most writers know that it is no longer acceptable to use “he” to refer generically to both males and females. The trouble is that you may not know how to replace it. Most people, instead, fall into this trap:

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in their quiver.

That is, when referring to a person of unspecified gender, we tend to replace the unacceptable “he” with the seemingly neutral “they” or “them.” The trouble is that that is wildly grammatically incorrect.

What to do? You have two options.

Your first option is to use the clunky but correct “his or her,” as in, “An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver.” As a one-off sentence, you can do this without loading down the text. But if you intend to write several more sentences like this, the result is distracting and pretty much atrocious.

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver. He or she also is fleet of foot, and he or she prizes his or her bow.

Horrible! Your option in this case is to just pick a gender. You can say, “An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in her quiver” with no repercussions. You could also say “his.”

Alternately, in some cases, you can rewrite a few of the sentences to eliminate the pronouns completely. For example, you can write,

An elven archer carries an unlimited supply of arrows in his or her quiver. Such an archer is also fleet of foot, and all elven archers prize their bows.

Some of our older words to describe professions, however, are inherently sexist. These professions have been renamed to avoid sexism. Here, a short list.

  • Policeman is now police officer.
  • Salesman is now salesperson.
  • Fireman is now fire fighter.
  • Anchorman is now anchor.
  • Chairman is now chair.
  • Congressman is now member of Congress.
  • Mailman is now letter carrier.
  • Workmen is now workers.

Others have been eliminated altogether, so that stewardess is now flight attendant, actress is now actor, and hostess is now host.

Some words, of course, do not brook changes. For example, what would you use in place of manpower? In cases like these, where no known alternative is available, you’ll simply have to use the word.

Note: No grammar rules exist that I know of to cover non-binary genders. If you know of a consensus on any of these, please drop me a line and let me know so that I can add to this article! Thanks!

Under construction . . .

… but when it’s live, I’ll announce it!