This Writers Workshop post is covering a pesky, irksome thing called the dangling participle, or dangling modifier. Now, I can just hear some of you grumbling…you hate grammar classes. Hello, you’re a writer so you need to get this right :). All kidding aside, knowing how to recognize dangling participles is so important in your writing (and correcting them is even more so). Something you write might seem to make perfect sense, but the error can jar your reader out of the story. Furthermore, as indie authors, we have readers who (like it or not) can be hyper-critical of our writing. So let’s not give them a reason to criticize…
Writers Workshop – So What Is A Dangling Participle?
The definition of a dangling participle is:
A participle is a word or phrase that modifies the subject of a sentence.
Okay, so it seems obvious that we should know the subject of each sentence that we write, and then modify it with a word or phrase. Ah, if it were that easy. What can happen is that you attach the participle to the object of the sentence, instead of the subject.
As I’m sure you’ve found out in your writing, things slip by. When my editor was working on The Emerald Quest, she noted a dangling participle that I’d written by drawing a box with an arm coming out of it (for the life of me, I can’t remember what exactly I’d written, but if I find it, I’ll include it here). I’d completely missed it but it was very amusing for her. And it could’ve been unintentionally amusing for my readers as well.
Writers Workshop – An Example From My Editor
I asked my editor to give me an example of a dangling participle. She is delightfully thorough and gave a great example with a full explanation:
Running to catch the bus, Larry’s red cap fell in the gutter.
Running is used as a participle in this sentence. A participle is defined as a verbal adjective or a verb that functions as an adjective (i.e., on its own, running would normally be a verb, but in this sentence, it functions as an adjective).
The whole introductory phrase, Running to catch the bus, is an adjectival phrase. Its function is to describe the subject of the main clause. The writer intends that this phrase describe Larry, but alas, the subject of the main clause isn’t Larry; rather, the subject is cap. So you end up with this comical scene of a little red cap (with little stick-figure legs?) desperately running for the bus. Because of the mistake in the structure of the sentence, the participle does not modify, or describe, what the writer intended.
That example is pretty obvious, but it’s surprising how often and how easily this kind of misplaced modifier can occur. Because the writer knows what he or she intends in the sentence, it never occurs to him that the sentence could have any other meaning other than the one intended.
One example of a fix for the sentence:
Running to catch the bus, Larry felt his red cap fly off his head and saw it land in the gutter.
Or, more simply:
As Larry ran to catch the bus, his red cap fell in the gutter.
There could be many more ways to fix it as well, so long as the subject and the action are logically and correctly connected.
Writers Workshop – Ruining A Serious Scene
Sitting alone on the cell floor and thinking I was next in line for interrogation, my heart was pounding hard enough to shake my entire body.
So what’s the problem here? The writer intends that sitting and thinking describe what the prisoner (I) is doing. However, the subject of the main clause is the heart. So technically and literally, what this sentence is saying is that the heart was sitting and thinking, as well as pounding (a very busy little heart).
By leaving something like this in your story, you risk jarring your readers, potentially losing some of the suspense you’re trying to create.
Writers Workshop – Fixing The Serious Scene
This is an easy fix:
Sitting alone on the cell floor and thinking I was next in line for interrogation, I felt my heart pounding so hard that it shook my entire body.
As I was sitting alone on the cell floor and thinking I was next in line for interrogation, my heart was pounding hard enough to shake my entire body.
As you correct sentences, just make sure that things are logically connected.
Writers Workshop – Who’s Feeding Who?
This one made me laugh, but it’s the kind of phrase that can be missed:
We picked Sally up from the store and we fed her cats.
The phrase we fed her cats is a dangling participle. It is not clear to the reader if we fed Sally’s cats or if we fed Sally to the cats. What a big difference!
Writers Workshop – You Won’t Catch Everything
As my regular followers know, I am keen on indie authors writing and selling the best possible stories they can. This is why I think every author should employ a good/great editor. You alone are not going to catch all the mistakes in your writing. And many of us are not going to see all the pesky dangling participles (or other mistakes). It’s funny, but the more I’ve worked with my editor, the more I’m aware of dangling participles, but I still find that they slip into the copy that I submit to her. And that’s why I employ her…
I hope you found this grammar lesson, if not informative, at least amusing :). Good luck with your writing!
PS: Here are a couple more examples I found on the Internet (from Grammar Girl)…they make you think!
Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.
Wishing I could sing, the high notes seemed to taunt me.