Dangling modifiers occur when it is unclear to which word a descriptive part of sentence applies. A classic example would be "She left the room fuming" -- is it "she" or the room that's fuming?

But how about this sentence:

I found her in the library, studying history.

Could the intended meaning -- it was her who was studying history -- be misinterpreted to mean that I found her while I was studying in the library? Likewise, could the sentence be parsed to lead to the absurd interpretation that the library was doing the studying?

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    I don't see how it could be interpreted in a way that meant the library was studying history. But the other two possibilities are there, though by far the most likely interpretation would be that she was the one studying history. The ambiguity remains if you add whilst, before studying. – WS2 Jan 19 '15 at 16:44
  • Dangling participles tend to become problematic only when they are front-shifted, as in "[While] studying history, the library was her constant haunt." Such a front-shifted participial phrase strongly tends to be read as having for its subject the most immediately following noun or noun phrase, which is generally the subject of the main clause; and here that leads to absurdity, in that libraries do not themselves study history. In "I found her in the library, studying history," the possibility of misreading seems to me to be negligible. – Brian Donovan Jan 19 '15 at 18:02
  • @Brian: Personally, I think that rule is just a little silly. Everyone knows the library is not studying history, so why should it be so important to avoid implying such? – Kevin Jan 19 '15 at 19:27
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    Lose the comma intonation (and the comma, of course, in writing) and it becomes unambiguous. You found her, she was in the library studying history. If you make it parenthetical with intonation, the question arises as to why, and that leads to an ambiguity search. – John Lawler Jan 19 '15 at 19:33
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    I would be inclined to say that "finding (a person)" and "studying history" are both active endeavors that a single person is unlikely to pursue at the same time, making the sentence less ambiguous than if "found" were "met" or "stumbled into", or some other more passive activity. (And, to be clear, I'm not talking about active/passive in the grammatical sense.) – wfaulk Jan 19 '15 at 21:30

If you substitute a modifier possible for all three, is it then hopelessly unclear ? For example

I found her in the library without any books!


Nope. It is obvious that the library is not studying history; that would be absurd! When replaced with something that would be less obvious, however, the sentence still directs the modifier at "her". Check it: "I found her in the library, on fire". Because of the comma, the modifier cannot be directed at the object immediately before it. The comma almost acts as a buffer, redirecting the modifier to an earlier subject. If you think of the reason for that, the comma almost makes the sentence into a list: "I found her in the library, studying history, and eating a baguette". Thus the "in the library" and "studying history" are placed as parallels in the sentence.

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