Monday, August 16, 2010

Dangling Participles: They Only Sound Dirty

Kurt asks:
What, exactly, is a dangling particple? I know it's bad, but I have no idea how to avoid it.
This morning on Twitter, I spied a tweet from @EditEditEdit that gave a fabulous example of a dangling participle.
As pathetic as it sounds, editors live for this kind of madcap stuff. To understand what's so damn funny, you first need to know how to identify a participle, and then recognize when one is dangling.

Building blocks:   
  1. A participle is an '-ing' word
  2. Very often, words that end in '-ing' are the present participles of verbs, such as swimming, talking, laughing, and so on. 
  3. But these words can also be used as adjectives, as in swimming class, talking point, or laughing gas.
  4. These participles can also be part of larger phrases, called participial phrases, that modify a noun. 

Let's take a closer look at @EditEditEdit's sentence:
After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some potatoes.

Surely the writer meant for the participial phrase, 'rotting in the cellar,' to modify 'potatoes.' But there's a problem: the word 'potatoes' doesn't immediately follow the participial phrase. In other words, the participle has been left dangling. To make matters worse, the writer has inadvertently set up the sentence so that 'rotting in the cellar' modifies 'my brother.' Ha! Hilarious, no?

Quick rules:
  • A participle is word or phrase ending in '-ing' that modifies a noun.
  • Directly after the participial phrase, you need a comma and then the noun that's being modified.

Correction: Sentences with dangling participles usually can't be saved without some reworking. Here are two alternatives:
  • After rotting in the cellar for weeks, the potatoes were brought up by my brother.
  • My brother brought up some potatoes that had been rotting in the cellar for weeks.


  1. Is this correctly described as a dangling participle, though? What's dangling is the entire prepositional phrase "After rotting in the cellar for weeks".

    To (strictly) be an instance of a dangling participle, I believe it would have to be a construction such as "Leaking, my brother brought the half-stoppered bottle up the stairs."

  2. Thanks, Joshua. You're right, of course -- the "ing" word is the participle. But the term "dangling participle" (sometimes "dangling modifier") is typically used to cover this situation. Then there's the dreaded "dangling preposition," which means ending a sentence with a preposition.

    Love your sentence with the leaking brother.

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