Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WNW: Dangling Participles

A couple of weeks ago, Michelle Jeffries asked me to address participial phrases. Since that's a giant topic, I thought I'd start with the way participles are most often misused: the famous dangling participle!

They're loads of fun . . . really! They're easy to giggle over . . . at least when you find the mistake in someone else's work (or before yours gets in front of an editor).

I originally wrote about them on the Writing on the Wall blog about a year and a half ago, so for those who have followed that blog a long time, you may recognize parts of this.

So what is a dangling participle?
It's a modifier, usually noun, pronoun, or phrase—basically any descriptor—that's in the wrong place for what it's supposed to be describing. Often that means it's too far away from it, or at least that something else is in the way.

Sounds confusing, so let's just ignore the definition for a minute and show some examples. They're the best way to learn anyway, right?

Try these sentences on for size:

Joe went on the ride with my sister called The Raging Flame of Death.
Hmm. That's not a sister I'd like to hang out with. Oh, wait! The
ride has that name. In that case:

He went on the The Raging Flame of Death ride [or the ride called The Raging Flame of Death] with my sister.

Other funny examples:

Two computers were reported stolen by the high school principal.

(That's one unethical principal . . .)

The anchor reported a coming lightning storm on the television.

(Get AWAY from that television!)

Please look through the contents of the package with your wife.

(Must be one huge package if she fits in it.)

James hadn’t meant to let it slip that he wasn’t married, at least to his boss.

(Wait. His boss is Mrs. James?)

Quiet and patient, her dress was simple, yet stylish.

(Let's hope her dress wasn't loud and impatient.)

At the age of five, her mother remarried.

(Um . . . doubt that's legal in any state. And she certainly wasn't a mother then.)


These little nasties are painfully easy to drop into your work without you even knowing it. They happen when you've used an action and then the subject that belongs to the action is put into the wrong place.

The result is most definitely a meaning you didn't intend.

One of the most common forms is relatively easy to spot: look for sentences that open with an "ing" phrase:

Turning the corner on a bike, a huge dog startled him.

(Apparently that's a dog with serious coordination skills.)

Driving through town, the grocery store appeared on the right.

(Freaky store. And just how big is its car?!)

And here's one of my favorite dangling participles (which I found in a New York Times bestseller that shall remain nameless, even though it was just too funny):

Being my father, I thought he'd be more upset.

(Now THAT is one amazing genetic trick . . .)

You get the idea.

Dangling participles can sound scary and intimidating, but in reality, they're easy to fix. Just make sure the action in your sentence is really attached to the person or thing doing it.

For the writers reading this, it's something you don't need to worry too much about in the drafting stage. It is, however, one of those things you should try to catch in the revision stage.

One great way is to read your draft aloud. The stresses and pauses will make you recognize when something doesn't quite sound right. Pick some trusted readers to ferret out these kinds of bloopers as well.

Your future lack of embarrassment is most definitely worth the effort.


I've got a busy bloggy day:

I also posted HERE over at the AML blog and HERE at Writing on the Wall.

10 comments:

Karlene said...

Hee-larious! I love danglers.

DeNae said...

These are my favorites, particularly since they are almost exclusively limited to writing. There aren't too many of us who make these mistakes in speech. Love WNW!!

Kimberly said...

This is why I sometimes find it helpful to read my work out loud. Makes it easier to catch things like this. Funny as they are I don't want them in my manuscript!

Rebecca said...

I love those!

Well...when I'm not the one writing them.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Those dang danglers! They seem to sneak into a sentence when you least expect them. Thanks for the reminder to be on the lookout for them.

Carolyn V. said...

Hee hee, I know it's wrong, but I love reading dangling participles. They are so funny. =)

L.T. Elliot said...

I may be reading this on a Thursday but I'll tell you what, I'm SO GLAD it's WNW.

Helena said...

"Laying on the hospital bed with my gown wide open and my bottom bare for all to see, a doctor, assisted by two nurses, began a colonoscopy."

(I copied this off someone's blog recently. Cracked me up.)

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

I love your posts. They really make me think. I wonder how often I make this mistake. Probably never. =)

Amber Lynae said...

I am certain that I have been guilty of dangling some participles, but it is funny when other people do it.

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