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Participles, and how not to dangle them…

True confessions time: back in the dim and distant days when I first embarked on lexicography, I was tasked with drafting potted biographies of famous people. In trying to be succinct, I had a rather bad habit of writing in the following vein:

‘Born in Russia, his most famous opera is …’

The problem stems from the fact that the first part of the sentence (the subordinate clause ‘born in Russia’) doesn’t have an explicit subject, although from the context you’d expect it to be a person. The next words you see (‘his most famous opera’) are the subject of the sentence, but they clearly don’t match the preceding clause, because an opera cannot be born (unless one was writing figuratively). Result? A possibly disconcerted, even irate, reader and an embarrassed junior lexicographer.

This type of grammatical faux pas is called a dangling participle (the participle here being ‘born’), otherwise known as a ‘dangler’ and (rather less picturesquely) as an ‘unattached’, ‘misrelated’, or ‘hanging’ participle. Fortunately, my grammatically expert colleagues edited my work and prevented me from dangling my participles for all to see in the published dictionary.

Dangling in exalted company…

It was of some comfort to learn that even literary greats have been known to fall prey to this error, including Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, Arthur Miller, and even the Bard of Avon himself:

Sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me. (Hamlet)

However frequently they are encountered in famous authors, the media, or scientific tomes, hanging participles are not considered to be good, grammatical English.  They may also cause amusement and bewilderment in equal measure – not the writer’s desired effects. To demonstrate, here are a few more examples from America, India, Australia, and the UK, all of which can be found in the Oxford English Corpus (the misrelated participial clauses are shown in bold):

X Having eaten in nearby restaurants, this is a great place to let your food settle with a bottle of reasonably priced plonk.

X Walking down the cliff, his smile went brighter.

X If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost the company US $12 billion.

X After driving for 100 km to Lhasa airport, the road meets the Tsang-po (the Brahmaputra)…

Prevention and cure

So how do you spot dangling participles and what can you do to avoid them? A participle is a form of a verb. English has two types of participle: present participles and past participles. Present participles are easy to identify: they end in –ing. Past participles of regular verbs end in –d or –ed, while those of irregular verbs may end in –t or -en, or they may take a completely different form (all entries for irregular verbs in our free online dictionary show these forms). Here are a few examples:

Verb Present participle Past participle
Play playing played
Decide deciding decided
Eat eating eaten
Go going gone
Think thinking thought
Bite biting bitten

Participles play various roles in English: here we’re focusing on how they are used and misused in subordinate clauses, that is, clauses that depend on a main clause for their meaning. Here’s an example of a correct use of a participle in a subordinate clause:

Looking around, I was the only one driving an American car.

The present participle (‘looking’) refers to the subject of the main clause (the pronoun ‘I’) – ‘I’ is the speaker or writer and the person who is both looking around and driving an American car, so everything matches up.

Here’s a prime example of a sentence containing an ungrammatical ‘dangler’:

X Walking along the passage to the town, a memorial archway blocked our way.

Let’s unpick what’s happened:

  • What is the subject of the above sentence? It’s the noun performing the action of the main verb.
  • The main verb is ‘blocked’, and the thing that’s doing the blocking and therefore the sentence’s subject is ‘a memorial archway’.
  • Our real-life experience tells us that an archway can’t possibly be ‘walking along the passage’: our minds do a double take and try to make sense of the mismatch.

Rewritten like this, the sentence is easier to understand:

Walking along the passage to the town, we found that our way was blocked by a memorial archway.

The sentence has been changed to make ‘we’ the subject, which matches the participle ‘walking’ in the preceding clause. All is now clear and grammatical.

Just when you thought you were safe…

It’s not only participial phrases that can dangle and come adrift from their subjects:  they’re part of a wider issue that grammarians describe as ‘floating modifiers, ‘hanging modifiers’, ‘dangling modifiers’ or (again) ‘danglers’.

A modifier is a word or word group that changes or adds to the meaning of another word or group of words.  Most writing makes use of different types of phrasal constructions to modify other statements. Here are some grammatically correct examples in which the modifying phrases (emboldened) and the subjects in the main clauses are matched:

Noun phrase:

A “worker” to the core, he believed in letting his work do all the talking.

Adjective phrase:

Tall and slim, she’s an exceptionally striking woman.

Prepositional phrase:

After hours of argument, the team finally agreed to provide him with copies of the documents.

As is the case with participial constructions, such modifying phrases and their subjects can become mismatched or ‘dangle’, as these examples demonstrate:

X At age 82, her schedule still kept her away from home 300 days a year, an aide said when Mrs Child visited Seattle.

X Now almost 7 months old, doctors said Katie will be fine.

That’s quite a venerable schedule, and how amazingly precocious those medics were!

Let’s unpick the second example. The subject is ‘doctors’ (they are the ones saying that Katie will be fine). As this subject was modified by the phrase ‘now almost 7 months old’, the sentence could be understood to mean that the doctors were very young indeed.

All you need do to avoid confusion is to make the ‘doctors’ the subject and to move the adjectival phrase to the noun that it’s intended to modify (‘Katie’) to ensure that everything matches up and the sentence is clear:

Doctors said that Katie, now almost 7 months old, will be fine.

Using the same principles, you could also rewrite the ‘82-year-old schedule’ sentence above so that it’s clearer. Why not have a go at producing a version that doesn’t contain a dangler? No prizes, but if you post a grammatically well-formed version in the Comments section below, we’ll give you a virtual pat on the back for being so clever.