Don’t Dangle that Participle

Unlike many of the so-called “grammar rules” that are really style rules, the rule against dangling participles is a good one.

A Dangling What, Now?

A participle is a verbal adjective that comes in two main varieties: the present participle, usually formed with -ing, and the past participle, usually formed with -ed. These verbal adjectives generally function the way other adjectives do:

  • The flowing water pours out of the fountain.
  • The disrespected attorney lost his practice.

In addition, participles can head a phrase that modifies a noun in a sentence:

  • I saw the dog running down the street.
  • She hit the car parked in the driveway.
  • Sitting in the park, I awaited my true love.
  • Beaten back by the revolutionaries, the army fled the field.

The Peril of Participles

But here’s where we can get into trouble. Sometimes we write a participle phrase that doesn’t modify the right part of the sentence—or any part of the sentence:

  1. I was really nervous because my girlfriend was late. Wondering where she was, she eventually arrived half an hour later.
  2. Flying into the airport, Las Vegas is a beautiful city to see.
  3. Licking the floor, I saw the dog trying to clean up after making a mess.

In each of the above sentences, the participle phrase is misplaced and said to be “dangling.” In sentence 1, Wondering where she was more appropriately describes the speaker (“I was wondering where she was”), but its inclusion in the second sentence has the effect of modifying “she,”—which causes confusion. Was she wondering where she was when she eventually arrived?

Example 2 is a typical kind of mistake. In this example, flying into the airport is meant to describe where it is and under what circumstances Las Vegas is a beautiful city. However, the way it’s written makes it sound as if Las Vegas itself is flying into the airport.

Example 3 is similar—it’s meant to describe what the dog was doing when the speaker saw him, but the phrasing makes it sound like the speaker was licking the floor when they saw the dog.

Clarity, Clarity, Clarity

Unlike many grammar and style rules, the rule against dangling participles and modifiers is a sound one. When this rule is not followed, writing becomes more confusing—or worse—distracting.

Writing should never get in the way of the message the writer is trying to convey.