Dangling modifiers — and other kinds of danglers — can be very funny, indeed.
Even the best of writers occasionally commits an error of word order, wielding a descriptive word or phrase in a way that causes it to say something altogether different from what the writer meant.
Our Hero is searching for a side road: Half-covered with fallen tree branches, he almost missed the entrance.
Those darned leaves will get in your eyes every time!
Like harpoons of steel, she flashed out her claws at the last moment…
Gotta love a steely woman.
The storm’s wind rolled through her hair like a flag…
Wait, what? The wind was like a flag? Hm… “Oh, say can you see…”? Not unless there’s a fair amount of smoke blowing around, I’d guess.
Notice that this windy thing is not a true dangling modifier, at least not in the same way as the hero half-covered with tree branches and the harpoon-like heroine.
In the first two instances above, a phrase appears to refer to a word that’s simply not the word the author intended to point to. This occurs because, for a variety of reasons we won’t go into here, the English language depends largely on word order to create meaning. By and large, a modifying phrase — especially one that begins with an -ed word (a past participle) or an -ing word (a present participle) — points to the noun or pronoun closest to it.
So, where our first brave author intended to say that the side road was half-covered in branches, the story’s hero stumbles into the traffic and ends up covered in branches himself. Mention of the side road occurred in the previous sentence, and so, understandably, Author figured the reader would draw the desired inference. And yes, sooner or later the reader does get the picture…but not before enjoying a hilarious little distraction in the unintended image.
The simile in “like harpoons of steel” succumbs to the same predicament: it also points to the nearest noun or pronoun, and suddenly “she” looks like a set of steel harpoons. A prickly sort, she is.
This utterance is a mishmash of misplaced modifiers. Fix it:
At the last moment, her claws flashed out like harpoons of steel.
The third example isn’t quite a dangling modifier. It’s just something that doesn’t make sense. Leaving aside the objection that wind doesn’t roll, exactly, we have the problem that it’s the woman’s hair the author wants to compare with a flag.
In theory, then, directly abutting “like a flag” with “hair” should work. But it doesn’t. Grotesquely, the sentence seems to say, “The wind rolled like a flag through her hair.”
Why? One reason is the position of hair as object of the preposition “through.” Through her hair is an adverbial prepositional phrase. So when we readers see “the wind rolled…through,…” we think the utterance is describing the action of rolling: thus our attention focuses on the verb, not on the hair.
But as we would see if we had the larger narrative context in front of us, Author wishes to paint a picture of the heroine posed dramatically (even melodramatically) with her hair flying in the wind.
Again, we’re distracted by a dangling monster. That critter needs to be shoved into line:
Her hair flew like a flag in the rolling wind.
I love this one:
Clutching at her torn nightgown, the woman’s breath came short and fast.
Oh, the drama! Oh, the bathos!
A couple of potential fixes come to mind:
As she clutched at her torn nightgown, the woman’s breath came short and fast.
Clutching at her torn nightgown, the woman panted.
She’s supposed to be scared half to death, so she probably could “pant in terror” or “gasp for air.” Or some such.
Moving hilariously on…
Hungry, it took me a while to fall asleep.
It’s hard for an indeterminate “it” to feel much of anything, even hunger.
Hungry, I took a while to fall asleep.
Talk about your month of Sundays:
On my twenty-sixth birthday in November 1992, I hiked…
This is a misplaced modifier.
In November 1992, on my twenty-sixth birthday, I hiked…
Hidden beneath fallen leaves, I wonder what the escapee thinks.
Surprisingly, the narrator is not hiding beneath a pile of leaves. Author is describing a small wildlife drama — a spider’s prey that manages to escape.
I wonder what the escapee thinks, hidden beneath fallen leaves.
Hiding beneath fallen leaves, what does the escapee think?
What think you, dear reader, of these danglers? And how would you deal with them:
• Once completed, he would fill out and submit the application.
• While riding the Natchez Trace, angry Choctaw Indians surrounded him.
• Like a doe manipulated by a hunter, the flames drove the woman toward the building’s center.
Not quite as many dangling monsters as contributing authors. But close.
And that is why…
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