What Is a Dangling Participle, Modifier, or Participial Phrase?

Watch the answer from Thomas above or read a transcript of the video below.

What is a dangling modifier?

Nikkita J. asks: "What is a dangling modifier?"

I love this question because it shows how the language of grammar can seem so strange.

I remember being a kid and hearing somebody talk about a dangling participle.

Now a dangling participle is just another name for a dangling modifier. So I thought, "Oh my gosh, don't let your participles dangle!"

And I would talk to people about, "Oh, I think that's a dangling participle," even though I had no idea what I was talking about!

So let's figure out what a dangling modifier, or a dangling participle, might be.

Even though this language of grammar—this language we use to talk about language—may seem a bit unusual and out of the ordinary, it can be very helpful for helping us be clear in our writing and in our speaking.


There are two aspects of the phrase, "dangling modifier."

Let's start with the word "modifier." A modifier is simply a word or a phrase that modifies, as you might imagine; or, that describes something else.

For example: "Delighted by the flowers of spring, I picked them and brought them inside."

Here the phrase "delighted by the flowers of spring" is describing me.

Delighted by the flowers of spring, "I" brought the flowers inside.

So here we have a modifier—in this case an entire phrase, an entire participial phrase if you want to learn another fancy term—that describes something that I was feeling when I decided to bring the flowers inside.

So that's a modifier, or in this case, a participle phrase.

You don't have to remember that. What you do need to remember is this is a phrase which describes something or someone; in this case, me.

The Frog and the Face Mask

Now what does it mean for a modifier to dangle?

To dangle just means that the modifier is hanging out somewhere in space, as if it
were dangling, and we don't know what it attaches too.

So I thought to bring in a visual aid to talk about dangling participles.

Here is something that can dangle.

[Brings out a face mask.]

So, suppose I had a sentence like this:

"Wearing a face mask, the frog entered the store."

Here the modifier is the phrase "wearing a face mask."

And what does this phrase or modifier modify?

The frog.

Wearing the face mask, the frog entered the store.

The Confusion of Danglers

This is clear, but watch what happens if we take that modifier and remove it from what it modifies, "wearing a face mask."

Look at that phrase by itself. We don't know who or what is wearing the face mask. We don't have enough information. We just have a phrase, hanging out in the air—dangling if you

In fact we can even call this a dangler. Grammarians sometimes call them danglers.

Here's where it can get confusing. Listen to this sentence:

"Wearing a face mask, everybody watched the frog enter the store."

Now, at first glance you might think that that sentence was saying more or less the same thing, but notice that it's unclear who is wearing the face mask.

Does it mean that everyone was wearing a face mask? Or does that mean that the frog was wearing a face mask? Or that the store was wearing a face mask?

We don't know.

That's why a dangling modifier can be confusing and even dangerous because we may end up saying something we didn't mean to say.

The Secret to Success

So here's the secret with dangling modifiers.

The way to avoid having a dangling modifier is to make sure that your modifier is clearly connected to what it's modifying:

"Wearing a face mask the frog entered the store."

We know who was wearing the face mask because it's right after the phrase in the sentence.

Similarly, similarly the example I gave earlier, "Delighted by the flowers of spring I brought the flowers into the yurt."

Here it's clear who was delighted because I put the I—the pronoun I—in the sentence right after
the phrase.

And so I often advise students who are learning how to write more complicated sentences using modifiers and participles and participial phrases—if you like that terminology—to always keep them clearly connected to what they are describing.

So, Nikkita J., I hope that answers your question, "What is a dangling modifier?"

And I commend you for asking a question like that because it gives us a chance to see how the sometimes strange-seeming language of grammar can actually serve us in being clearer in our sentences, and clearer in what we want to say.