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ARE YOU DANGLING? (Identifying and Fixing problems with Dangling Participle Phrases

by Andrea Dietrich

ARE YOU DANGLING? (Identifying and Fixing Problems with Dangling Participle Phrases)

I think everyone has heard the term “dangling participle” at some time or other. However, I wonder how many people really understand what it means! In order to discuss this grammar problem, I first want to explain some terms useful for this discussion: participles and reduced adverb clauses. For those who may not remember the exact meaning of participles, there are two kinds of them in English, the present participle and past (sometimes called passive participle). As they are verbal adjectives, they are formed from verbs. In the phrase “running water,” running is the verbal adjective.

The -ing form is termed present participle even though it does not necessarily mean it describes something in the present. It refers to something in progress. Most past participles are formed with –ed, but keep in mind that many verbs are irregular, so in a phrase such as “woven cloth,” the word “woven” is the past participle, and in the phrase “bored audience,” the word bored uses the regular –ed ending for its past participle form.

Now for a description of reduction of clauses and how this relates to the problem of “dangling participles.” We all reduce our clauses naturally when we speak. For example, in the phrase “the boy they talked to” there is reduction of the adjective clause. The full adjective clause would be “whom they talked to,” but rarely do we even use the words WHO and WHOM in our spoken sentences. Just as they occur in adjective clauses, reductions happen all the time in our adverb clauses as well. Adverb clauses begin with words like BEFORE, AFTER, WHEN, IF, WHILE, BECAUSE, etc. It’s typically when we are using the adverb clauses of time that we most often reduce our clauses. Here are two examples of adverb time clauses and their reductions: “After I eat dinner” is reduced to “After eating dinner” and the clause “While we were walking home” becomes the reduced clause (also called a phrase) “(While) walking home.” In these examples, the verbs of the adverb time clauses are in the progressive form, and so the reductions used are the –ing participles. Now here is an example of a past participle reduction: “When written.” That phrase would result from a longer adverb clause such as this: “When the letter was written.” Of course, our adverb clauses and our participle phrases must be attached to independent clauses in order for us to make complete sentences. In the case of my very first example, the completed sentence would look something like this: “After I eat dinner, I usually see a movie.” Likewise, I could use the reduced clause “After eating dinner” and produce this sentence: “After eating dinner, I usually see a movie.” These examples sound perfectly fine. It’s when the subject of the independent clause does not match up with the intended (and unseen) subject of the reduced participle phrase that we end up with a dangling participle.

Here is an example of a sentence with a dangling participle: “While painting the house, the telephone rang.” Of course, it is obvious that only a human (or humans) can be painting the house. However, this sentence is very poorly constructed because the participle phrase is followed by an independent clause using a subject which is not the same as the subject implied in the reduced participle phrase. Proper English tells us to use the unnamed subject of the reduced clause (the person painting the house) when we begin the independent clause part of the sentence. Therefore, we must say something like this: “While painting the house, I heard the telephone ring.” By saying it the first (wrong) way, we are saying it was the telephone that was painting the house! Now I will show this rule using a reduced participle clause I cited earlier and attaching it to an independent clause: “While walking home, a frog jumped out in front of us.” The subject of the reduced phrase is not named, but we can easily assume it was a person or more than one person. By following that phrase with the subject “frog” in the second clause of the sentence, we are actually saying it was the frog who not only jumped in front of us but who was also walking home! There are two ways to correct the dangling participle of this sentence. We can put the subject back into the adverb clause and say “While WE were walking home, a frog jumped out in front of us.” Or we can make sure the subject implied in that first phrase is used as the subject of the independent clause by saying something like this: “Walking home, WE saw a frog jump out in front of us.”

Let’s apply this same rule to solving a problem with a PAST participle phrase, using the previous example “When written” and attaching it to an independent clause in a way that makes it dangling: “When written, he sent the letter to his mother.” The subject “he” is a person, and a person cannot be “written,” so the reduced phrase is dangling. Once again, we can choose one of two different ways to correct the problem. We can put the subject back into the reduced participle phrase and say “When the letter was written, he sent it to his mother,” or we can use the subject implied by the participle phrase and say this: “When written, the letter was sent to his mother.”

Now of course, there are not many people who will make such glaringly telling mistakes as those shown in my above examples. However, many writers sometimes make the mistake of using dangling participles.  I suppose a lot of Americans do not even notice this kind of error, and the writers either do not care or they do not know they are making the mistake. Nevertheless, people who know grammar very well are going to see those mistakes and think a little less of the writing’s construction! In some cases, the dangling participles created by poets really do look bad and quite noticeable even to the general public! In an exceptional poem, a “dangling” indiscretion might be overlooked, or the editor of a magazine might simply point out the error and have the poet correct it. Even the best of writers make mistakes now and then. However, if you now realize you are someone prone to dangling your participles, please take time to review your poetry. Make sure the sentences with reduced phrases are matching up with the independent clauses of the sentences. There are so many things that you as a writer must be aware of in addition to the less common mistake of dangling participles, but if you are consistently making errors of any kind, you will not be able to be published in reputable magazines in which good writing skills are highly regarded.