Dangling Participles

“Court’s okay with it, State Department’s okay. Not even God can mess with us now! You hear that?”—Deputy Jim Dangle, Reno’s finest keeper of the peace, shouting to the heavens to tempt the patience of his creator.

This week, we discuss dangling participles.

We’ve already touched upon the topic of participles, which are forms of verbs that function like adjectives to modify nouns and and pronouns. However, just like this bumpkin preparing for her rematch with Yogi the Slayer, we’ve got unfinished business: We still need to explore how to identify and avoid dangling participles.

Participial Phrases

Before we deal with dangling participles, we first need to understand participial phrases. Don’t worry, though, it’s easier than it sounds. A participial phrase is just a phrase that contains a participle and modifies the subject or object within a sentence. See the italicized participial phrases in the following examples:

  • Ex) Snowboarding down the roof, the crow worked on his fitness for next year’s Interspecies X Games.
  • Ex) The quarterback, crippled with self-inflicted trauma, suffered further ignominy at the hands of the opportunistic linebacker.

Dangling Participles

A dangling participle results when a participial phrase does not specify the noun to modify—so the participle sits dangling on its own, crying out for help. Look what can go wrong with each of our previous examples:

  • Ex) Snowboarding down the roof, I watched the crow do his best Flying Tomato impression.
  • Ex) Crippled with self-inflicted trauma, the linebacker shoved the quarterback to the ground.

In each example, we don’t know what the participial phrase is supposed to modify. Is it “I” or “the crow”? Is it “the linebacker” or “the quarterback”? This lack of clarity will wreak havoc on your writing.

The Solution

Luckily, an easy fix exists to eliminate such confusion: Make sure you put your nouns as close as possible to the participial phrase. In most cases, that will nip ambiguity in the bud.

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