How to Recognize and Correct Dangling Modifiers

Dangling modifiers are guaranteed to show up on both the SAT and ACT. On t0he former, they’re by far the most common error tested on Fixing Sentences (there are usually at least two per section, sometimes three, very occasionally four); on the latter, they usually only appears once or twice per test, but they also have a habit of showing up when you least expect and are therefore easy to overlook. So what is a dangling modifier, and how do you fix it? Dangling modifiers are best explained through examples, so let’s take a look at an example.

Correct: The dog jumped over the fence after escaping from its leash.

In this sentence, the subject (the dog) appears immediately and the modification follows. We can, however, also rewrite the sentence so that the modification comes before the subject:

After escaping from its leash, the dog jumped over the fence.

Even though the dog no longer appears at the beginning of the sentence, it is still the subject. And at the beginning of the sentence, we now have a clause that describes the subject but that does not name it. If the subject does not immediately follow that description, however, the result is a dangling modifier. When taken literally, sentences that contain dangling modifiers are often completely absurd.

Dangling Modifier: After escaping from its leash, the fence was jumped over by the dog. (Implies that the fence escaped from its leash.)

Dangling Modifier: After escaping from its leash, jumping over the fence was what the dog did. (Implies that jumping escaped from its leash.)

While some of the dangling modifiers that appear on the SAT and ACT clearly sound wrong, like the sentences above, others can be much harder to catch — especially if you’re not looking out for them. For example:

Dangling Modifier: Having focused on celebrity gossip for most of its existence, it came as a surprise to many readers that the magazine began printing stories devoted to more serious topics.

Dangling Modifier: Having focused on celebrity gossip for most of its existence, many readers were surprised when the magazine began printing stories devoted to more serious topics.

Since dangling modifiers often start with participles (“-ing” words), the appearance of the word “having” at the beginning of the sentence is a tip-off that we are dealing with a dangling modifier. The question we must then ask is: What focused on celebrity gossip for the majority of its existence? The magazine. So the magazine must come immediately the comma. It does not matter that the meaning of the sentence is clear in the other versions; they are grammatically incorrect regardless. When dealing with dangling modifier questions, you must first identify the subject.

Correct: Having focused on celebrity gossip for most of its existence, the magazine began printing stories devoted to more serious topics and thus surprised its readers.

We can also rewrite the sentence entirely so that the subject appears at the beginning:

Correct: Because the magazine had focused on celebrity gossip for most of its existence, its readers were surprised when it began printing stories devoted to more serious topics.

Answer Choices On the SAT, answer choices for dangling modifier questions usually follow a highly predictable pattern. Three answers will not fix the dangling modification and can be eliminated automatically. Of the two answers that remain, one will be awkward and/or create a fragment (usually the longer one), and the other one will be correct. Less often, the sentence will simply be rewritten completely. On the ACT, there will be only one answer that correct eliminates the dangling modifier.