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Grammar Bite: Don't Dangle Your Participles

Participle.

It's one of those words your English teacher used once or twice but that didn't really stick with you. Yet improper use of a participle can cause your sentence to blur before your readers' eyes. In this Grammar Bite, we'll define participles and look at how things can go awry with them. Conquer the dangling participle, and your writing will smarten up right away.

A participle is a verb doing the job of an adjective, usually ending in -ing (a present participle) or -ed (a past participle). For example:

The shifting sands covered the pharaoh's tomb completely; the despised ruler would be hidden forever from the world.

Shifting is acting as an adjective of sands. Because it's in the present tense, it's a present participle. Despised is a past participle: the verb despise is used in its past tense to describe ruler. So far, so good? Great. Now for the tricky bit.

When the participle gets separated from its noun, it doesn't end up describing that noun. We call this a dangling participle. Dangling participles often occur when the participle is part of a clause at the beginning of a sentence and the subject of the sentence isn't doing the action the participle is describing. As in:

While walking in the dark, the lamp fell and broke.

That's quite a lamp to be walking around in the dark. Clearly, someone was walking around in the dark, not the lamp. But the participle phrase walking in the dark is modifying the noun lamp. There are a couple of fixes for this. First, you can put the correct subject in the opening clause:

While Steve was walking in the dark, the lamp fell and broke.

You can also change the subject of the sentence to the noun the participle phrase modifies:

While walking in the dark, Steve bumped the lamp, which fell and broke.

In The Copyeditor's Handbook, Amy Einsohn offers us a few more examples of dangling modifiers:

Relieved of responsibility for the Woodrow project, there is no reason for us to delay the end-of-quarter review.
Having been reprimanded for tardiness, buying a clock was her first priority.
Driving down the street, the Empire State Building was seen.

Each of these examples demonstrates a situation to be careful of. In the first example, the subject is there and the predicate (the verb) is is. But there is is really a placeholder for the true subject and predicate of the sentence: no reason and to delay. The participle phrase ends up describing the placeholder subject. There cannot be relieved of anything.

In the second example, the main clause has a verb as its subject (called a gerund). Watch your participle phrase: having been reprimanded for tardiness is modifying buying. It's another example of a subject that can't be modified.

In the final example, the passive voice puts the object of the action (in this case, the Empire State Building) into the subject position, where the participle phrase modifies it. It certainly would be something for the Empire State Building to be driving down the street, but I don't think that's the intended meaning.

Each example also has the same two fixes available to it: put the correct subject in the opening clause or change the subject of the sentence to the noun the participle phrase modifies:

Dangling participle: Relieved of responsibility for the Woodrow project, there is no reason for us to delay the end-of-quarter review.
Possible fix: Relieved of responsibility for the Woodrow project, we have no reason to delay the end-of-quarter review.
Possible fix: Now that we have been relieved of responsibility for the Woodrow project, there is no reason for us to delay the end-of-quarter review.

Dangling participle: Having been reprimanded for tardiness, buying a clock was her first priority.
Possible fix: Having been reprimanded for tardiness, she made buying a clock her first priority.
Possible fix: Because she had been reprimanded for tardiness, buying a clock was her first priority.

Dangling participle: Driving down the street, the Empire State Building was seen.
Possible fix: Driving down the street, we saw the Empire State Building.
Possible fix: While we were driving down the street, the Empire State Building was seen.

So remember:

  • A participle is a verb acting as an adjective.
  • When the participle doesn't modify the noun it is intended to, you have a dangling modifier.
  • To fix a dangling modifier, do either of the following:
    • Put the correct subject in the opening clause.
    • Change the subject of the sentence to the noun the participle phrase modifies.

Have any questions? Let me know in the comments section.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 19th 2011, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Dwight W. (Abilene, TX)
"Each of these examples demonstrates a situation to be careful of." Isn't this a case of ending a sentence with a preposition? I've been wrong before and may be wrong now.
Wednesday January 19th 2011, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Dwight, yes, that sentence ends with a preposition. Although some would say you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition, it is in fact OK grammatically. Garner has a good article on ending sentences with prepositions in "Garner's Modern American Usage" (under "Prepositions"), in which he traces where the superstition came from and offers lots of evidence that ending a sentence with a preposition is a natural function of English. In the end, your sentences should sound natural rather than stuffy or tortured. If the means ending a sentence with a preposition, go for it.
Wednesday January 19th 2011, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Naomi B.
That's one of the best and clearest explanations I have ever seen, done with clear examples. What a joy! Thank you.
Wednesday January 19th 2011, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Janet D.
How about: "Each of these examples demonstrates a situation" where the writer needs to be careful.
Wednesday January 19th 2011, 3:29 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Naomi. Sure, Janet, that would work too.
Wednesday January 19th 2011, 5:43 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Erin, doesn't being separated from the word it modifies, or the subject, imply that that noun is actually in the sentence?

It seems to me that most dangling participles occur because the word modified is left out of the sentence entirely, really extreme separation!
Wednesday January 19th 2011, 8:32 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
But I did so enjoy the column! Thank you!
Thursday January 20th 2011, 8:12 AM
Comment by: Mark R. (Arlington, TX)
I was taught many years ago that ending a sentence with a preposition was never allowed. It's good to know that some flexibility is allowed. Thanks Erin.

Mark
Thursday January 20th 2011, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Mark and others, yes, we were taught that. And Churchill was taught that too. He constructed this sentence to show how ridiculous the rule was: This is a situation up with which we shall not put. (I think that's it correctly)!
Thursday January 20th 2011, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jane: If you want to know the real story behind the Churchill anecdote, check out my Language Log post here.
Thursday January 20th 2011, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Ben, for the whole story. The poor chap who did the reconstruction that is attributed to Churchill never got credit for a beautiful illustration of the awkwardness of that rule!

But I agree that Churchill himself would have been pleased to have thought of the eventual sentence.

It's sort of a 'whisper down the alley' situation, with each writer changing a 'wee something'!
Thursday January 20th 2011, 3:40 PM
Comment by: Joel B. (Highlands Ranch, CO)
Great article. It reminds me of the Nuns in Highschool English :-). Seriously, sometime real examples help demonstrate the issues with writing style. Strunk & White would be proud!
Sunday January 23rd 2011, 12:51 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Thank you Naomi, that is a great article , very clear for me;I realy to do some exercices before writting very well.
Thank you and continue to help your students.
Sunday January 30th 2011, 5:44 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
On the one hand, yes, dangling modifiers like the ones in the first two examples are somewhat disconcerting if you're really into analyzing grammatical structure. But, honestly, I had no problem in discerning the meaning of either one.

Now the third example is, of course, ridiculous and is easily turned into a joke. But, again, I dug it, admittedly with a wry smile on my face, once more charmed a bit by those slight miscalculations we humans make every day that lighten the load -- if but for the moment.

If we really want a laugh though, let's not forget "faulty reference" and recall Groucho Marx's howler: "Last night I went out and shot an elephant in my pajamas. How that elephant --" Well, you know! --BigErn
Wednesday February 23rd 2011, 3:57 PM
Comment by: SallyAnn at Metaphor Press
The superstition(great choice of word)referred to above has at its base the centuries' old belief in the 'volgare illustre' that was Latin. The language wars from even before the time of Dante and Petrarch still had resonance among the nineteenth century English grammarians who sustained that since a Latin sentence never ends with a preposition, proper English had to comply. The syntactical and grammatical character of Latin is quite different from that of English, making the 'rule' natural in the former, and somewhat forced in the latter in many instances. What an invigorating article and subsequent thread of comments. Thank you! And a particularly hearty thanks to Erin Brenner and Winston Churchill.

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