Writers Beware: Dangling Participial Phrases Cause Confusion
We (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.
Dangling Participial Phrases!?
Isn’t dangling for earrings, bungee jumpers, or grapes on the vine?
Alas, no. Participial phrases can also dangle, like this:
Rounding the bend, the medieval church loomed in the distance.
That ancient church is on the move!
English runneth over with modifiers: adjectives, adverbs, clauses, phrases, and participial phrases. Participles and other modifiers are easily (and often humorously) misplaced. In addition, they distract your readers. Today we’ll concentrate on dangling participial phrases.
What is a participle anyway?
You’ll recognize these verb forms. With regular verbs, participles end in ing (present tense), and d, ed, or t (past tense).
giggling cleaning dreaming
giggled cleaned dreamt
How to form participles
To form present participles, add ing to verbs. This sounds straightforward, but can still trip up English learners. Sometimes you just add the ing to a word: (cost become costing). Other times you double a letter before the ing (set becomes setting) or drop a vowel first (forgive becomes forgiving).
With past participles, there may be no d, ed, or t in sight. Examples: cling/clung, give/given, spring/sprung, tear/torn, and throw/thrown.
To create a participial phrase, combine a participle with other words:
running the fax machine
finding the checkbook
barbequed the spareribs
As you can see, participial phrases behave like adjectives. So here’s the trick to prevent dangling. Position participial phrases near the word or words they modify.
Running the fax machine, Bipsy fled to Paris in her mind.
Finding his checkbook, Mr. Higginlooper vowed on a “one place only” rule.
In both examples, the participial phrases clearly modify the subjects of the sentences. But when it’s not clear what your participial phrases modify, problems of the dangling sort arise.
Chasing Jesse James, the locomotive carrying Detective Alan Pinkerton chugged down the track. (The train is on the chase?)
For drawing on the wall, Grandmother grounded Freddy. (Grandma did the wall art?)
Tanner faced his interviewers, his shoes polished and wearing his only suit. (His shoes are wearing his suit?)
Fixing dangling phrases like these is easy. Just rearrange or recast your sentence.
Wearing the Invisibility Cloak, Snape missed Harry hiding in the hallway. (Harry’s cloaked, not Snape.)
Wearing the Invisibility Cloak, Harry barely breathed as Snape passed him in the hallway.
Blessed with superior stamina, Marie’s sneakers pounded the pavement. (Strong sneakers?)
Blessed with superior stamina, Marie ran. Clad in plaid sneakers, she pounded toward the finish line.
When swimming across the lake, the boat always followed Judith. (The boat swims?)
When Judith swam across the lake, the boat always followed.
Loaded with bonbons, the waiter carried the tray. (The waiter’s been snacking?)
The waiter carried a tray loaded with bonbons.
Heads up for dangling participial phrases, especially hilarious ones. Coming soon: common word mix-ups and more misplaced modifiers. Send ones you spot. We love using your examples.