Umm... Pardon Me,
Your Gerund Is
A modifier must never dangle unless you want your sentence to mangle. This rule of botched syntax should remind you always to be on the lookout for dangling modifiers—participles, infinitive phrases, clauses, and prepositional phrases that grammatically modify the noun or noun phrase next to them but logically refer to a noun or noun phrase that has been displaced to another part of the sentence or is absent altogether. These constructions are common in speech, where they often go without comment, and they can be found occasionally in writing. But they are distracting to the reader, and they can sometimes lead to unintended absurdities. Consider this example, penned by a well-respected writer and published by the New York Times:
After wading through a long, quasi-academic examination of the statistical links between intelligence, character, race and poverty, the reader’s reward is a hoary lecture on the evils of the welfare state.
This sentence begins with a prepositional phrase that has a gerund for its object. As a verb form, the gerund cries out for a subject, and we must supply it mentally. The sense requires reader, but the subject of the main clause is reward. We want the reader, not the reward, to do the wading. We can easily solve this conflict by keeping the modifying phrase as it stands and giving the main clause the proper subject:
After wading through a long, quasi-academic examination of the statistical links between intelligence, character, race and poverty, the reader is rewarded with a hoary lecture on the evils of the welfare state.
Here is another example, also taken from a famous writer in the New York Times. Describing the perils of being a newspaper columnist, the writer imagines interviewing his spouse as the first in a series of increasingly desperate measures to come up with material:
Once hooked on interviewing his wife, degradation proceeds swiftly.
Again we are asked to connect the modifying portion of the sentence with the grammatical subject of the main clause. But we can’t. We want a person—in this case the husband—to be hooked, not an abstraction like degradation. Here the solution is to turn the phrase into a full clause with the subject specified:
Once the newspaper columnist is hooked on interviewing his wife, degradation proceeds swiftly.
Now we can witness the degradation with peace of mind.
A third example, also from the New York Times, puts the modifying element at the end of the sentence:
Mr. Clinton acknowledged the role played by the men who subdued the gunman when he spoke at a dinner on Saturday night.In this case, the modifier is a full clause that can’t be made fuller. (The clause would be elliptical if it read when speaking at a dinner on Saturday night.) It is clearly Mr. Clinton who spoke, not the gunman (who missed dinner, as he was in jail at the time). The grammatical ambiguity caused by the misplaced modifier makes the sentence sound absurd. Here the answer is to reposition the clause so that it is closer to the noun it modifies:
When he spoke at a dinner on Saturday night, Mr. Clinton acknowledged the role played by the men who subdued the gunman.
Modifiers often dangle because the agent of the action is not the subject of the verb in the main clause. The chief culprit here is the passive voice, which banishes the agent of the action from being the subject. Consider these examples, one using an infinitive phrase and another using a prepositional phrase with a gerund:
To improve company morale, three things were recommended by the consultant.
In reviewing the company’s policy, three areas of improvement were identified by the committee.
These sentences can easily be fixed by making the consultant and the committee the subjects:
To improve company morale, the consultant recommended …
In reviewing the company’s policy, the board identified …