Know What You Mean, and Mean What You Say — Dangling Participles

Dangling participles, sometimes called dangling modifiers, have to be one of my all-time favorite mistakes, if only because the resulting sentences can be so funny.

To brush the dust off of your college grammar lessons, dangling participles are those descriptive words, phrases, or clauses suffering from separation anxiety. You’ll find them at the beginning of sentences, perfectly happy to modify, or describe, the closest imposter that happens to get planted right smack next to them, casting a shadow of doubt on your writing. Check these examples out:

•    Having been thrown in the air, the dog caught the ball.
•    After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges.

Would anyone really launch a dog in the air? Well, maybe, but not in this case. The sentence just doesn’t read right. It was the ball, not the dog, that was thrown in the air. The sentence has been constructed improperly and simply needs fixed to make sense:

•    The dog caught the ball that was thrown in the air.

The same thing with the second sentence: it’s not the brother who has been rotting in the basement for weeks; it’s the oranges.

•    My brother brought up the oranges from the cellar, which had been rotting down there for weeks.

Dangling participles are often funny, but they also are distracting and inaccurate, and easy to fix. Simply revise your writing.

To determine if you are dangling your participle, try this trick: take the participial phrase and place it after the sentence’s subject (The dog, having been thrown in the air, caught the ball). If it doesn’t make sense, you’ve dangled your participle. Revise immediately.


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