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Dangling participles

September 11, 2011

I’m sure most writers have heard of the infamous dangling participle. Most of us have even created a few. So what exactly is a dangling participle?


What is a participle?

Participles are verbs ending in –ing (present participle) or—except for irregular verbs—in –ed (past participle) and functioning as adjectives. Since they are verbs, they describe actions or state of beings, and since they function as adjectives, they modify nouns.

Examples:

The washed dishes (past participle).

The broken record (past participle).

The smiling man (present participle).

The confusing explanation (present participle)



What is a participial phrase?

A participial phrase is a phrase containing a (past or present) participle.

Examples:

Exhausted after twenty hours of work, he collapsed as soon as he got home.

Floating in the pool, she looked up at the blue sky.

 



What is a dangling participle?

Like all modifiers, participles need to go next to the noun they modify. If the noun the participle modifies is merely implied, not clearly stated, the participle is left dangling and ends up modifying the wrong subject.

Examples:

Slipping into bed, Keile was still on Haydn’s mind.

It’s Haydn, not Keile, who’s slipping into bed.

Rewrite: Slipping into bed, Haydn still thought of Keile. Or: When Haydn slipped into bed, Keile was still on her mind.

Tugging at it again, it refused to budge.

“It” is not the subject doing the tugging.

Rewrite: She tugged at it again, but it refused to budge.

Sitting across from the other woman, the customary evasion came easily.

The customary evasion is not sitting across from the other woman.

Rewrite: Since she sat across from the other woman, the customary evasion came easily.

Dragging in a long breath at the harsh command, Becky’s eyes snapped open.

Body parts are a great source for dangling participles. Clearly, Becky’s eyes can’t breathe.

Rewrite: At the harsh command, Becky dragged in a long breath and her eyes snapped open.

A disheveled mass of red hair popped from under the covers, gasping for air.

Hair can’t breathe either.

Rewrite: Sue’s disheveled mass of red hair popped from under the covers. She gasped for air.



So how do you avoid dangling participles?

The best advice is to use participles sparingly. Overusing participial phrases—dangling or not—is a sign of an amateur. If you do use participles, check to see if the subject of the main clause is the same person committing the action in the participial phrase and place the participle as close to the noun it modifies as possible.

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