One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.
— Groucho Marx
The image of an elephant in a pair of men's pajamas is enough to bring a giggle to anyone's lips. But have you ever thought about what makes this joke funny? Of course, analyzing what makes a joke funny is a great way to ruin the joke—in this case, though, it's also a great way to learn about dangling modifiers! We grammar nerds owe Mr. Marx a big thank you for this entertaining example.
The problem in the above sentence, and the crux of the joke, is the misplaced prepositional phrase "in my pajamas." This prepositional phrase is acting as a modifier—that is, it is altering or adding information to a different part of the sentence. The problem with dangling modifiers, as with "in my pajamas" in this joke, is that it is unclear what the phrase is modifying. Did the man, still wearing his pajamas from the night before, shoot an elephant? Or did the man shoot an elephant who was wearing his pajamas?
Dangling modifiers can provide great material for jokes, but only when they are used intentionally. When they are accidentally used in writing, unintentional comedic results can ensue. Take a look at these examples of accidental dangling modifiers:
1. "I was referred to a psychologist with severe psychological problems."
That wouldn't be my first choice, but hey, to each his own.
2. "Gasoline will not be sold to people in glass jars."
It's wrong to discriminate against people who choose to make their homes in the luxurious comfort of glass jars.
3. "Having been thrown in the air, the dog caught the ball."
That's one talented dog.
Entertaining as they may be, you can see how these mishaps can put a kink in serious writing. So what can you do to avoid using dangling modifiers in your writing? First, pay attention to your prepositional phrases. In the above examples, with severe psychological problems, in glass jars, and in the air are all prepositional phrases that have been misplaced. Make sure that your prepositional phrases clearly refer to the correct subject.
Another tactic for avoiding dangling modifiers is to break long sentences into several shorter sentences or to be more explicit about the meaning of your sentence. For example, you might say, "I was referred to a psychologist because I was suffering from severe psychological problems," or, "The ball was thrown in the air, and the dog caught it."
The most important and effective way to avoid dangling modifiers is to have someone else read your work. If they start laughing when reading an academic essay or a technical document, you may have some dangling modifiers to fix!