Dangling Modifiers: Venial or Mortal?

Susan Holzman

And you thought the fifth deadly sin was lust! Not so, according to the Hamilton College Writing Center. Misplaced and dangling modifiers hold that place after overuse of passive voice, incorrect punctuation of two independent clauses, wordiness, and misuse of the apostrophe. Omnilexica, a dictionary website, offers a garland of definitions for dangling participles, so if you are unclear as to what exactly they are, here is an opportunity to check. Left to debate is whether the dangling modifier or participle is a venial or a mortal sin.

It is, in fact, a debate. The Random House Handbook (1992) says, “Avoid a dangling modifier,” and follows this statement with clearly-marked examples (in capitals, in red): DON’T and DO.

On the other hand, David Crystal (2006) claims that if there is no ambiguity resulting from an absent referent, there is no harm and no need to alert the grammar police.

David Rattigan, a freelance writer and editor, offers the following advice to editors: “As I edit, I usually correct dangling modifiers discreetly to save the writer the embarrassment from an error that’s the literary equivalent of going out with your flies undone.”

Stan Carey, also a freelance editor (citing from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage), presents quotes from Shakespeare and Jane Austin with glaring examples of dangling modifiers. He also reports that Merriam-Webster thinks danglers are “a venial sin at most.”

Working from knowledge, understanding, and awareness, editors correct texts to make them clear and comprehensible. Considering voice and register, editors suggest changes and revisions.  There should be one winner in this debate, and that is a well-edited text that reads clearly and flows well

For editors that are still dangling, here are some Internet sources:

Are You Dangling? (Identifying and Fixing Problems with Dangling Participle Phrases

Some Dangling Modifiers Okay?

 Grammar and Style in British English: A Comprehensive Guide for Students, Writers and Academics

Common Usage Dilemmas: Misplaced Modifiers: Lost and Found

“A Dangling Modifier Walks Into A Bar …”


Crews, F. (1992).The Random House handbook. Sixth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Crystal, D. (2006). The fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot and left. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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