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A dangler (also known as a dangling modifier or dangling participle) is a sentence element—usually a participle or a phrase anchored by one—that doesn’t relate syntactically to the noun it’s intended to modify. In other words, when a modifier doesn’t appear where it’s logically supposed to be, it’s a dangler—for example:

Leaving home, the weather was sunny and crisp.

Here, because the introductory modifying phrase leaving home immediately precedes the subject the weather, this sentence is constructed as if to state that the weather is leaving home. Most of us would be able to figure out the sentence’s intended meaning—which is why we should be forgiving of danglers in informal contexts—but such constructions might damage a writer’s credibility.

And in some cases, danglers can cause confusion—for example:

Coming downstairs, my husband was already starting breakfast.

Here we can presume the speaker is the one coming downstairs, but the sentence is constructed as if to say that the husband was beginning to prepare breakfast as he came downstairs.

Such sentences should be reworded so the modifier applies directly to its noun:

Leaving home, I saw that the weather was sunny and crisp.

Coming downstairs, I noticed that my husband was already starting breakfast.

Acceptable danglers

Some danglers have been in common use for so long that they’re now accepted and rarely cause confusion. Some of the most common ones are according, judging, regarding, and speaking. Here are a few examples:

According to the DEIS, the surge of Marines and laborers will lead to an increase in crime, fights, alcoholism, drugs, rape and prostitution. [Poetry Foundation]

Judging by the return Berkshire has seen so far on BYD, Munger might not merely be encountering genius. [WSJ]

Considering that it took months to pass the last long-term extension of unemployment benefits, millions of Americans may be left without vital financial resources for weeks or even months while Congress debates the measure’s passage. [Daily Finance]

Dangling adverbs

Dreaded by many editors and grammarians, dangling adverbs are used in informal writing to express the writer’s attitude about the information given in a sentence. A few common dangling adverbs are accordingly, arguably, certainly, curiously, fortunately, happily, hopefully, ironically, naturally, obviously, sadly, and strangely. Here’s how they look in practice:

Hopefully, the public is not suffering from “compassion fatigue” after 6 weeks of 24/7 saturation coverage of Haiti. [Huffington Post]

Obviously, not all economists are in favor of the current proposals in Congress. [NY Times]

Ironically, Santiago was harder hit. [Guardian]

Such danglers can be questionable in formal writing because they reveal writers’ biases and create an informal tone. In many cases, they can be removed outright with little loss of meaning.