Elephants in Pajamas: Understanding the Dangling Participle

The Bold Triumph by Pursuing Victory

From elementary school on, you were taught the rigid categories that constitute the “parts of speech”—noun, verb, adjective, conjunction, and four or five more.

That was a lie.

Well, no, that’s too harsh. Let’s say that it was a bit of a half-truth. English is far too versatile for just seven or eight categories of words to undertake all the vigorous communication we demand. So we regularly see words hopping over the fences in the language zoo in order to mimic other parts of speech when needed. For an example, look no further than our subheading, “The bold triumph by pursuing victory.” “Bold” is normally an adjective, but here it is working overtime as a mass noun, meaning “all the people who are bold.” “Pursuing” is a gerund—a form of a verb that functions as a noun, but (since “pursue” is a transitive verb) can also grab a direct object like “victory.”

Poetry constantly uses the technique of words crossing the dividing lines that separate parts of speech. In prose, the technique adds expressiveness and liveliness.

Until, of course, it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Meet the Participles

This month, our grammar and usage columns are taking a close look at verbs. When verbs start masquerading as adjectives, we call them participles. There are two varieties:

Present participles have forms that end in -ing; they describe current or continuing action. (Ha! That word “continuing” in the last sentence? That’s a present participle.) Other examples that show present participles in use: Julian rubbed his eyes and stared again at the glowing computer monitor. Bleeding profusely, Edna staggered into the emergency room.

Past participles often end in -ed, but there are many irregular verbs that have different suffixes. These words represent completed action. Examples: Defeated in the semifinal game, members of the Little League team consoled each other over root beer floats. The spoken word never has the emotional heft of a good ol’ country music ballad.

Note that “spoken” in the last example has one of those irregular forms we mentioned. In grade school, most people were taught the principal parts of dozens of verbs. You may remember the drill: speak, spoke, spoken; go, went, gone; wear, wore, worn; and many, many others. Those three parts represent the basic present tense, the past tense, and the past participle form of the verb.

Because a participle functions as an adjective, it has to “modify”—describe or alter the meaning of—a noun. The rule in English is that the participle will attach to the free noun nearest in the sentence. So, in our first examples, glowing describes monitor, and bleeding describes Edna. In the third example, defeated modifies members; even though game is a closer noun, it is bound up in the prepositional phrase “in the semifinal game,” and so we bypass it when looking for the modified noun. And, of course, spoken modifies word in the final example.

Errors arise when participles are placed incautiously into sentences. Because participles latch onto nearby nouns, a misplaced participial phrase (a participle and its cluster of modifiers, complements, and objects) can lead to embarrassing, unintended results.

One Morning I Shot an Elephant Wearing My Pajamas

Grammarians use the term dangling participle when a writer mangles the meaning of a sentence by placing a participial phrase where it attaches to the wrong noun, or where there is no noun to anchor it. Consider the following examples adapted from actual website content (but modified to spare the feelings of the writers):

  • When talking about car accidents, distracted drivers are now at the top of the topics. This sentence says distracted drivers are talking about car accidents. Is that what the writer meant?
  • This lesson is how to find the best shoes to support your children’s growth explained by a pediatric podiatrist. The podiatrist explains children’s growth?
  • Whether attempting to cross an icy overpass over I-75 or trying to beat the train to a railroad crossing, accidents can and do happen. There is no noun in this sentence to tell us who is “attempting” and “trying.”
  • Living in today’s society with all the technology, fast-moving vehicles, accessible travel, and fast-paced lives, accidents occur. As written, this sentence says “accidents” are “living in today’s society.” What? That can’t be what the writer intended.
  • When hiring an attorney, I know there are intangible considerations. Who is hiring the attorney? “I” am, according to the placement of the participle.
  • Don’t let a negligent dog owner get away with biting you or your child. I would be outraged if the owner bit my child.

Misplaced modifiers aren’t limited to participles or participial phrases, but those seem to be the easiest way for even experienced writers to write absurd sentences. Being alert to this trap goes a long way toward helping a writer avoid it. The other important way to purge dangling participles from your writing is by having every piece of web content you produce thoroughly proofread by someone whose judgment you trust. Everyone makes mistakes; proofreading is the key to catching and correcting those errors before they appear in published form.

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