Dangling Participles and Misplaced Modifiers



Dangling Participles  http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/dangling-participles.aspx

Episode 208: February 11, 2010
General Grammar

by Mignon Fogarty

What Is a Participle?

Before we talk about what it means to dangle a participle, we have to answer the question What is a participle?

A participle is a verb that acts like an adjective. The present participle form of a verb usually ends with "ing." For example, "dream" is a verb, and "dreaming" is its present participle. "Swim" is a verb, and "swimming" is its present participle. To use the verb, you could say, "We'll swim after class." "Swim" is an action, a verb.

To use the participle "swimming" as an adjective, you could say "We'll meet at the swimming pool." "Swimming" acts like an adjective modifying the noun "pool." It tells you what kind of pool it is--a swimming pool.

Here's another example: "hike" is a verb, and "hiking" is the present participle. To use the verb, you could say "Let's hike the trail." To use the participle, you could say, "Don't forget your hiking boots." "Hiking," the participle, tells you what kind of boots I want you to bring.

A dangling participle modifies an unintended noun.

What Is a Participial Phrase?

So now I trust that you understand how to use verb and their participles, but to understand dangling participles, we need to talk about participial phrases.* These are just phrases that contain a participle and modify the subject of the sentence.

They can include words besides the participle, such as prepositions, pronouns, and nouns, but for now, we'll just focus on the idea that they contain a participle like "swimming" or "hiking." The way they modify the subject isn't as straightforward as a single adjective modifying a single noun, but the participial phrase is still modifying a noun--the subject.

Here are some examples to help make it more clear:

Floating in the pool, I marveled at the clouds.

"Floating in the pool" is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, "I." "Floating" is the participle in the phrase "floating in the pool."

Here's another one:

Biting his victim, the vampire felt a momentary thrill.

"Biting his victim" is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, "the vampire." "Biting" is the participle in the phrase "biting his victim."

And one last example:

Beating you over the head with examples, I hope to make you understand participial phrases.

"Beating you over the head with examples" is the participial phrase modifying the subject, "I." "Beating" is the participle in the phrase "beating you over the head with examples."

In all three of those examples, the subject that was being modified by the participial phrase came right after the phrase. It was sticking close to the modifier so you couldn't miss it. The participial phrase doesn't have to be at the beginning of a sentence, but that is the place where it's most likely to dangle, so we'll stick with that format today.

Dangling Participles

Now we're ready to learn about dangling participles, because when you dangle a participle, it means your participial phrase is hanging there in your sentence with no proper subject in sight. They hate that as much as you hate it when a friend stands you up for lunch.

Here’s an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The birds are the only subject in the sentence, and they directly follow the participial phrase. The participial phrase has to grab on to something so it's not just dangling there, so it grabs the only subject--the birds. So what that sentence says is that the birds were hiking the trail, and that's probably not what I mean. There was probably somebody hiking the trail and hearing the birds chirping loudly.

We can fix it by adding the proper subject right after the participial phrase:

Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.

Here's another dangling modifier:

Wishing I could sing, the high notes seemed to taunt me.

Did you see the problem? The high notes are the only subject in the sentence, so the participial phrase "wishing I could sing" attaches to that noun because it doesn't want to dangle. That makes a sentence that says the high notes wish I could sing. If they were capable of wishing, they might wish I could sing, but what I'm really trying to say in that sentence is

Wishing I could sing, I feel taunted by the high notes.

In that sentence, "wishing I could sing" correctly modifies the subject "I," and it makes a lot more sense than imagining cringing high notes.


So to sum up, a dangling participle modifies the wrong noun. Usually you've left the subject implied and are taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean, which is generally not a good writing strategy. You fix a dangling modifier by putting the proper subject in the sentence, usually right after the participle or participial phrase.

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Underline the verb and circle the participle in these sentences.

The swimming pool heaved during the earthquake.
[verb=heaved, participle=swimming]

She dropped her curling iron.
[verb=dropped, participle=curling]

I have a hammering headache.
[verb=have, participle=hammering]

Every day Julie is thankful for running water.
[verb=is, participle=running]

The battering ram failed the test.
[verb=failed, participle=battering]

Underline the participial phrase and draw an arrow to the subject it is modifying.

Ordering pizza, I pondered Italian seasonings.
[participial phrase=ordering pizza, subject=I]

Hoping for a raise, Loubell scheduled the meeting for a time when her boss was most often in a good mood.
[participial phrase=hoping for a raise, subject=Loubell]

Flailing in the surf, Pat hoped the lifeguard would get there soon.
[participial phrase=flailing in the surf, subject=Pat]

Fighting over restaurants again, Sue and Rambo wondered if they should just skip dinner.
[participial phrase=fighting over restaurants again, subject=Sue and Rambo

Rising on the horizon, the blazing sun signaled a brand new day.
[participial phrase=rising on the horizon, subject=the blazing sun. Extra credit if you noted that "blazing" is a participle.]


Not all participial phrases are at the beginning of sentences or are in the present tense. Underline the participial phrases in these examples.

The instructor, beating the students over the head with examples, hoped to make participial phrases easier to identify.
[beating the students over the head with examples]

Wounded by an arrow, Jim's horse drug him down the path.
[Wounded by an arrow]

Squiggly called to the peeves hiding in the trees.
[hiding in the trees]

Trimming and coloring Jill's green spiky hair, the stylist daydreamed about bonsai trees.
[Trimming and coloring Jill's green spiky hair]

* Some people call these participial clauses or participial units.

Misplaced Modifiers     http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/misplaced-modifiers.aspx


Misplaced Modifiers

Episode 55: May 18, 2007
General Grammar

by Mignon Fogarty

Today's topic is misplaced modifiers.

Of all the writing errors you can make, misplaced modifiers are among the most likely to confuse your readers, but they're also kind of fun because misplaced modifiers can give your sentences silly meanings that you never intended. If you're not careful, you can end up writing that your boss is a corn muffin instead of that your boss invested incorn muffins.

I once worked with an editor who e-mailed everyone in the office the especially hilarious sentences created by misplaced modifiers. Each day, we produced enough reports to keep two copy editors busy, and many of the writers were scientists, so there were always lots of opportunities to find misplaced modifiers. The e-mails were entertaining, unless you were the one who had written the offending sentence.

What Are Modifiers?

Modifiers are just what they sound like—words or phrases that modify something else. Misplaced modifiers are modifiers that modify something you didn't intend them to modify. For example, the word only is a modifier that's easy to misplace.

These two sentences mean different things:

I ate only vegetables.

I only ate vegetables.

The first sentence (I ate only vegetables) means that I ate nothing butvegetables—no fruit, no meat, just vegetables.

The second sentence (I only ate vegetables) means that all I did with vegetables was eat them. I didn't plant, harvest, wash, or cook them. I only ate them.

It's easiest to get modifiers right when you keep them as close as possible to the thing they are modifying. When you're working with one-word modifiers, for example, they usually go right before the word they modify.

Here's another example of two sentences with very different meanings:

I almost failed every art class I took.

I failed almost every art class I took.

The first sentence (I almost failed every art class I took) means that although it was close, I passed all those classes.

The second sentence (I failed almost every art class I took) means that I passed only a few art classes.

Note again that the modifier, almost, acts on what directly follows it—almost failed versusalmost every class. In either case, I'm probably not going to make a living as a painter, but these two sentences mean different things.

How to Use Commas with Modifiers

A similar rule applies when you have a short phrase at the beginning of a sentence: whatever the phrase refers to should immediately follow the comma. Here's an example:

Rolling down the hill, Squiggly was frightened that the rocks would land on the campsite.

In that sentence, it's Squiggly, not the rocks, rolling down the hill because the word Squiggly is what comes immediately after the modifying phrase, rolling down the hill.

To fix that sentence, I could write, “Rolling down the hill, the rocks threatened the campsite and frightened Squiggly.” Or I could write, “Squiggly was frightened that the rocks, which were rolling down the hill, would land on the campsite.”

Here's another funny sentence:

Covered in wildflowers, Aardvark pondered the hillside's beauty.

In that sentence, Aardvark—not the hillside—is covered with wildflowers because the word Aardvark is what comes directly after the modifying phrase, covered in wildflowers

If I want Aardvark to ponder a wildflower-covered hillside, I need to write something like, “Covered in wildflowers, the hillside struck Aardvark with its beauty.” 

Here, the words the hillside immediately follow the modifying phrase, covered in wildflowers

Or better yet, I could write, “Aardvark pondered the beauty of the wildflowers that covered the hillside.” 

I can think of more ways to write that, but the point is to be careful with introductory statements: they're often a breeding ground for misplaced modifiers, so make sure they are modifying what you intend.

Dangling and Squinting Modifiers

Modifiers are so funny! In addition to misplacing them, you can dangle them and make them squint!

A dangling modifier describes something that isn't even in your sentence. Usually you are implying the subject and taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean—not a good strategy. Here's an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The way the sentence is written, the birds are hiking the trail because they are the only subject present in the sentence. If that's not what you mean, you need to rewrite the sentence to something like, “Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.” 

And how do you make a modifier squint? By placing it between two things that it could reasonably modify, meaning the reader has no idea which one to choose.

For example:

Children who laugh rarely are shy.

As written, that sentence could mean two different things: children who rarely laugh are shy, or children who laugh are rarely shy.

In the original sentence (Children who laugh rarely are shy) the word rarely is squinting between the words laugh and are shy. I think “shifty modifier” would be a better name, but I don't get to name these things, so they are called squinting modifiers (or sometimes they are also called two-way modifiers).

So remember to be careful with modifying words and phrases—they are easily misplaced, dangled, and made to squint. My theory is that these problems arise because you know what you mean to say, so the humor of the errors doesn't jump out at you. Misplaced modifiers often crop up in first drafts and are often easily noticed and remedied when you re-read your work the next day.