Grammar Bite: Don’t Dangle Your Participles

by Erin Brenner on January 14, 2011

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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