Words on Writing: D

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dangling modifier

A word or phrase intended to modify a word that’s missing … gone … verschwunden. When you calibrate your eye to danglers, a new source of humor opens up for you. In As a mother of eight, my sidewalk is never shoveled, the word mother is the dangling modifier. It’s intended to modify I, but the sentence contains no such word. Mother is left dangling. It has no choice but to modify the only noun in sight, sidewalk, creating a ridiculous pairing—unless the sidewalk has, in fact, spawned eight little sidewalks.

Compare misplaced modifier and squinting modifier.

For more, see the chapter “Touching Words” in Word Up!

dependent clause (subordinate clause)

A clause that depends on an independent clause to form a complete sentence. In People skittered off to the sides of the road because a neophyte driver was barreling down the icy street, the second half of the sentence—because a neophyte driver was barreling down the icy street—is a dependent clause.

A dependent clause begins with a subordinating conjunction (in this case, because) or a relative pronoun. By itself, a dependent clause is a sentence fragment. A dependent clause starting with a subordinating conjunction requires no punctuation when it follows the independent clause. When the dependent clause comes first, it is followed by a comma: Because a neophyte driver was barreling down the icy street, people skittered off to the sides of the road.

“Subordination is always a key to good writing,” says Bryan A. Garner. For more on the value of subordination, see “Tighten This! Challenge Sentence 28 [writing/editing game].”

Compare independent clause.

For more, see the chapter “Lend Your Commas a Hand—or Two” in Word Up!


A structure-class word—a, an, the, this, that, those, my, her, his, its, their, every, many, one, two, second, last (an article, a possessive, a number, etc.)—that precedes and modifies a noun but is neither an adjective nor another noun. Examples: this task, their travails, every livelong day.

(The words identified here as determiners may also play other roles, in which case they are classified differently.)

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

deverbal –ing noun

An ing noun with no verb qualities beyond the superficial resemblance. In Every cloud has a silver lining, the word lining has only noun qualities: it’s a direct object, and you could replace it only with another noun (like layer); you could not replace it with an infinitive (to line).

Compare gerund.

For a discussion of gerunds in procedure headings, see the chapter “How To Do How-To: Watch Your Steps” in Word Up!

diction level

The degree of formality in word choice. I beg your pardon, excuse me, and say what? say the same thing at various levels of diction.

For more, see the chapter “Decisions, Decisions” in Word Up!

direct object

A noun that completes the meaning of a transitive verb, answering the question what? In Tony whacked the snowbank, the noun snowbank is the direct object of the transitive verb whacked.

For more, see the chapter “A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech” in Word Up!

dummy word

See expletive.

A-Z page

This is not a list of all words about writing—you’d be scrolling all day. These definitions evolved while I was writing Word Up! I enjoyed what I learned and wanted to share it.

Get the full glossary and more in the book: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)

Last modified: October 21, 2022