One-Minute Writing Tuneup: Don’t Dangle Your Modifiers Off a Cliff
Modifiers add description, context, and pizzaz to nouns, verbs, and other parts of a sentence. As well as the adjectives and adverbs you’re probably familiar with, verbal phrases function as modifiers too. Verbal phrases take a verb and make it function as a noun, adjective, or adverb.
Examples of verbal phrases used as modifiers:
Using survey data, we measured the effects of the intervention. (How did we measure the effects? We used survey data.)
After preparing the gel, the postdoc denatured the proteins. (When did the postdoc denature the proteins? After preparing the gel.)
We hired a biostatistician to analyze the data. (Why did we hire a biostatistician? To analyze the data.)
But all modifiers are afraid of heights, and don’t like to be dangled off cliffs. A “dangling modifier” is a modifier that has nothing in the sentence to modify, or appears to modify something the author doesn’t intend it to.
Examples of dangling modifiers:
Incorrect: After reading the article cited, the hypothesis remains unconvincing.
Wait, who finds it unconvincing? Is the hypothesis having an existential crisis?
Correct: After reading the article cited, I still find the hypothesis unconvincing.
Incorrect: Not having used the correct medium, the experiment failed.
Wow, experiments can pick their own growth medium?
Correct: The student didn’t use the correct medium, so the experiment failed.
Incorrect: To investigate the phenomenon, a study was designed.
Yes, but who is actually doing the study?
Correct: To investigate the phenomenon, we designed a study.
As you can see from the last example, passive voice can easily lead to dangling modifiers. (More on that next time.)
To avoid dangling modifiers, make sure every verbal phrase in a sentence connects to the person or thing doing the action. Keep special vigilance at the beginnings of sentences. Avoid passive voice where you can.