How To Spot (and Fix) a Dangling Modifier

WHAT better way to start a sentence than to open it with a modifier—just make sure it’s not the dangling variety. Don’t be dismayed if your grammar teacher at school has never ever breathed a word about the dangling modifier. I only learned about it as recent as five or six years ago at a writing class.

Here’s an example:

(a) Born on the fourth of July, John’s exuberance reminds me of the fireworks on Independence Day.

(b) Born on the fourth of July, John has an exuberance that reminds me of the fireworks on Independence Day.

The modifier “Born on the fourth of July” is supposed to refer to John, not his exuberance. So the modifier in Sentence (a) is dangling.

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In our very first “Improve It!” post, find out how to spot dangling modifiers and how the ear is as vital as the eye in writing, if not more so.

Here’s our feature excerpt:

The entrance to Chinatown station in Pagoda Street on the North East Line was originally conceived to be a pagoda-inspired design that had numerous constraints due to the history of flooding in the area and the need to protect the integrity of the station Civil Defence shelter. Neither a good entrance nor a good design, it would have been a crime to build the proposed structure in such a beautiful street.  [72 words]

MRT Stations as Art Galleries
By Andrew Mead
The Straits Times, 14 June 2015
The writer is a former principal design manager of Land Transport Authority.

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Here’s our suggested revision:

The Pagoda Street entrance of the Chinatown station on the North-East Line was originally conceived as a pagoda-inspired structure that just wasn’t going to work, given the history of flooding in the area and the need to protect the integrity of the station as a civil defence shelter. It would have been a crime to build the proposed structure on such a beautiful street.  [66 words]

1. The phrase “conceived as” sounds smoother than “conceived to be.” It also tightens the prose.

2. Notice how the phrase “that had numerous constraints due to” becomes less stodgy when we just tell the situation like it is: “just wasn’t going to work.” This may sound conversational, but that tone of voice works—the same way the contraction works. But if contractions are a no-no for you, you have the other option: “was just not going to work.” And then you decide which sounds better.

3. This is clumsy: “the integrity of the station Civil Defence shelter.” This is much better: “the integrity of the station as a civil defence shelter.” We dropped the caps in “Civil Defence” because we’re not using the words as part of a name (i.e. the Singapore Civil Defence Force), but as a generic term.

4. The last sentence is an example of a dangling modifier. The line, “Neither a good entrance nor a good design,” modifies the “pagoda-inspired structure,” but what comes immediately after is the neutral subject “it” that does not refer to the “structure” at all. That’s why it’s “dangling.”

We’ve chosen to delete the entire phrase—yes, omit needless words! It serves little purpose other than to tell us what we already know, specifically that:

  • it wasn’t a good entrance (on account of the flooding)
  • it was an inferior design (that wouldn’t keep the integrity of a civil defence shelter)

5. Would we build a structure “in the street”? We prefer “on the street.”

  • on (preposition)
    – located somewhere in the general surface area of (a place): an internment camp on the island | the house on the corner.
  • in (preposition)
    – expressing the situation of something that is or appears to be enclosed or surrounded by something else: living in Deep River | dressed in their Sunday best | soak it in warm soapy water | she saw it in the rearview mirror.

We invite you to share your thoughts if you have other editorial suggestions, or write us at viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any curious, odd encounters with language you’d like us to feature and fix.

Improve It!” offers insights on how to revise, rewrite, snip, edit, move words around for style, clarity, and conciseness. We take a short extract from an article, polish it, and show you how and why we made the changes we did.

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