A dangling modifier is a phrase or clause that is essentially missing the word or phrase that it is supposed to be referring to or modifying. This frequently occurs when a clause is used to refer to a subject that is then missing from the clause that follows it. For example, in the sentence “Running through the storm, my hat blew away,” the first clause is modifying the subject of the sentence. A dangling modifier occurs in this example since the second clause indicates that the subject is “my hat,” meaning the hat is apparently running through a storm.
One of the most common ways in which a dangling modifier can occur is when the subject in a sentence is not appropriate. This type of sentence consists of two clauses: an independent clause and a dependent clause. The independent one can be separated from the other and form a complete sentence, while the dependent one needs to have the other one to make sense. In this example, “Running through the storm,” is a dependent clause since it has no subject, while “my hat blew away” is independent.
The dangling modifier occurs because the dependent clause only makes sense with a subject from the other clause to modify. There needs to be a subject that is “running through the storm.” The independent clause, however, has a subject, “my hat,” that does not make sense with the first part of the sentence. This creates a dangling modifier, as the first clause is left without a subject to create logical coherency within the sentence. Simply rephrasing the sentence as, “Running through the storm, I lost my hat,” or “As I ran through the storm, my hat blew away,” corrects this problem.
A sentence that has a dangling modifier can usually be fixed with simple rephrasing to introduce the proper subject for the modifier. Another example would be, “Stalking slowly through the brush, the zebra remained ignorant of oncoming danger.” In this sentence, the zebra seems to be “stalking slowly through the brush,” since it is the subject of the independent clause. Once again, this dangling modifier can be corrected with the addition of an appropriate subject: “Stalking slowly through the brush, the lion crept up on an unsuspecting zebra.”
A dangling modifier can also be created in a sentence without this structure, if the modified phrase or word is unclear. One of the most famous examples of this is a joke by comedian Groucho Marx: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” This joke relies upon the fact that the phrase “in my pajamas” logically refers to the subject “I,” but it can grammatically refer to the object of the sentence “an elephant.”