Undangling Your Participles

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Many fledgling writers have trouble with dangling participles. But before you can undangle them, you must recognize them in your writing.

What’s a Participle?

A participle is an action verb that acts like an adjective and usually ends in “-ing.” For instance, “write” is the infinitive form of the verb, and “writing” is the participle. Dangle/dangling. Snicker/snickering.

Like adjectives, participles modify nouns:

Participle   Noun
Writing desk
Dangling participle
Snickering sophomores

For example:

I hung my head and passed the snickering sophomores.

The participle is underlined; the participial phrase is italicized.

Participial Phrases

“Snickering sophomores” is the participial phrase in the previous sentence. It uses a participle that is not dangling, meaning it’s in its proper place and used correctly. Here are a few examples with the noun (subject) in bold.

Reading the story, I winced at the dangling participles.

“Reading the story” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “I.”

Driving the stake through Krako’s heart, the vampire hunter realized how much she loved her night job.

“Driving the stake through Krako’s heart” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “the vampire hunter.”

These examples show participial phrases—we’ll call them “PPs” for short—close to the subjects they modify. But PPs can pop up elsewhere in sentences and modify direct objects and objects of prepositions:

Krako whistled for the bats, hanging in the dark cave.

This PP modifies “bats,” which is the object of the prepositional phrase “for the bats.” Notice the noun and the modifying PP are close together. The following says something different:

Hanging in the dark cave, Krako whistled for the bats.

It’s not necessarily incorrect if, in fact, Krako survived the vampire hunter and is the one hanging from the cave ceiling. The participial phrase modifies the noun it is closest to.

When Participles Dangle

What about this sentence?

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, Mother brought up some shriveled apples.

Unless Norman Bates is narrating and Mother has reanimated, we’ve got a dangling PP here. Beware dangling PPs! They’re more insidious than zombies or vampires. (But not half as badass as giants.)

The subject of the sentence is “Mother.” The PP, “after rotting in the cellar for weeks,” is misplaced. It actually modifies “some shriveled apples.” (I’ve found, the best way to modify shriveled apples is to make apple butter…)

Mending Your Danglers

How to fix this? If Mother is actually a zombie, aim for the head. If she’s alive and merely wants to make apple butter—or rid the house of those pesky fruit flies—you could recast the sentence this way:

Mother brought up some shriveled apples that had been rotting in the cellar for weeks.

This correction puts the phrase next to the noun it modifies (“apples”).

Sometimes, though, there’s no subject in sight, as in this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk:

Grinding bones to make his bread, the dog danced wildly.

Fee, fi, fo, fum… Snickering sophomorically, I smell a dangling PP!

There are a couple things going on here. The participial phrase is meant to modify a subject that is not mentioned in the sentence—the giant that Jack came to kill. And while the big gourmand is grinding bonemeal for bread to spread with Mother’s apple butter, his little dog is dancing wildly, probably hoping for some of Jack’s scraps. Rephrased:

The giant ground Jack’s bones to make his bread as the dog danced wildly.

You can often use “as” to fix these problems.

After dinner the giant pulled the bread plate closer and said, “I ate his liver with some magic beans and a nice Chianti. Now pass the apple butter, Mom.”

“Please,” she insisted.

Please,” he said, patting the dog.

Summary

Dangling participles modify the wrong nouns. You fix them by ensuring that there’s a proper subject in the sentence, and placing the participial phrase right next to it.

Giants rule and zombies drool, bitches. Now, go write right!

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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