Today I am compelled to review a subject I encounter far too frequently in my reading material: the dangling participle.
We shall begin with a review of participles. Simply put, participles are verb forms used as modifiers of nouns.
The present participle form ends in -ing and expresses the action of the verb as in progress or incomplete.
The past participle ends in -ed and indicates the action of the verb is already complete.
Participles, then, are either -ing or -ed verbs, either alone or as part of a participial phrase, that are used as modifiers of the noun they are closest to.
Did you catch that? This is crucial, dear students. Participles and participial phrases modify . . . repeat it with me . . .
THE NOUN THEY ARE CLOSEST TO.
And therein lies the problem. To dangle your participle means you have inadvertently placed the noun the participle modifies in a position too far away from the participle for the sentence to make sense, thus creating an absurdity.
Ah, I see your eyes glazing over. Perhaps some relevant examples will help. Tell me, dear students, can you detect the problems with the following sentences?
- Walking along the cliff, Audra’s eyes fell.
- Planted in the garden, Mary watered her daisies.
- Roasted to perfection, Ruthy sampled her Thanksgiving turkey.
- Filling the bird feeder, a cat followed closely on Pam’s heels.
- One week after signing the contract, a check arrived in Tina’s mailbox.
- While singing a solo, the microphone slipped from Missy’s hand.
- Walking along the beach, the colorful shell caught Cara’s eye.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise that participial phrases are not the only modifiers writers and speakers often misplace. A particularly annoying version of this error can be heard on many news broadcast teasers. For example:
“At six o’clock, a cow is hit by a train, causing a two-hour traffic delay.”Shall we all plan to avoid that intersection this evening beginning at six?
“The bank at Fourth and Main is robbed at eleven.”Good. That gives me ample time to close my account before the robbery occurs.
Yes, yes, I know these are not exactly misplaced modifiers. More like incomplete modifiers, for we all know the teasers have left out a few important words, as in, “In our six p.m. broadcast, we’ll have details about the cow hit by a train,” or “A bank is robbed at Fourth and Main. Details at eleven.”
Forgive me--I simply could not resist airing this pet peeve. I shall now return to today’s lecture.
As stated previously, modifiers should always be placed as near as possible to the word or phrase being modified, preferably immediately before or after. Otherwise, as we have already seen, the sentence either paints a ridiculous image in our minds or is so convoluted as to be undecipherable.
Let us now examine a few more examples. See if you can find and correct the misplaced or ambiguous modifiers in the following sentences.
- Janet requested assistance putting up Christmas decorations in her text message.
- Debby recommends often drinking grape juice to avoid tummy bugs.
- Sandra swerved to avoid the deer on her way to the post office.
- Julie announced on Saturday she will finish editing her next book.
- Glynna almost cries over every romantic novel she reads.
If you care to join in the discussion and perhaps win a copy of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, by Mignon Fogarty, an equally astute grammarian, simply mention your interest and I shall gladly drop your name into my crown for the drawing. Winner will be announced in the Weekend Edition, as usual.
Seekerville’s very own Grammar Queen appears regularly as a guest of Myra Johnson. Myra claims she is a nuisance and a bore, but what can you do when you have a persnickety grammar snob living inside your brain? GQ does prove quite handy for edits and revisions! Sample her skills in Myra’s latest release, When the Clouds Roll By, book 1 in the Till We Meet Again historical romance series from Abingdon Press. Book 2, Whisper Goodbye, will be out this spring!