A dangling participle is a part of speech that slightly misdirects the meaning of a sentence, sometimes so subtly that people won’t notice.
If you have ever attempted to learn a second language, then you know that there are small exceptions and oddities in every tongue. While grammar rules typically differ in fundamental ways between different languages, there are some elements of speech that transcend language. The flexibility of the English language, for example, allows for manipulation and re-ordering of sentences that result in slight differences in meaning. Small changes can also make a sentence “correct” or “incorrect”, the latter often hinting at a non-native speaker attempting to master the intricacies of English.
One of these flexible aspects of speech that people often mistake is called a “dangling participle”, a part of speech that slightly misdirects the meaning of a sentence, sometimes so subtly that people won’t notice. This is deep-level grammar, but something you should be able to recognize if you want to achieve true “mastery” of language. So… let’s dig in!
What is a Participle?
Before we can explore the concept of a “dangling” participle, we must first understand participles themselves. By definition, participles are verbals, but they are not used as verbs, but as adjectives (modifiers for nouns), nouns, and parts of verbs. Let’s take a quick recap of these varieties before delving deeper into the complicated aspects.
Present and Past Participles
Two of the primary applications of participles include using a participle in conjunction with a “be” verb to express a current or past state of affairs. For example, for present participles, one might say:
- Sam is walking to the store.
- I am deciding what to buy.
- You are asking too many questions.
The examples above are used in conjunction with “is”, “am” and “are”, respectively. By adding the “-ing” to these verbs in combination with the “be” verb, it becomes a present participle.
When it comes to past participles, an “-ed” suffix is often added to verbs, although there are some exceptions to this rule. Some examples include the following:
- The conductor was tired of working.
- The trucks were operated by the workers.
- They have failed the class.
Participles as Nouns
In some cases, often at the beginning of the sentence, or near to it, a participle can be used as a noun. Essentially, this is a word derived from a verb that has come to represent the doing an activity or a state of being, i.e., a noun. Similar to present participles, participles used as nouns typically end in “-ing”.
Some examples of this are as follows:
- Pretending to be a police officer is a bad idea.
- The struggling of the poor elicits pity in many people.
- Standing in line often feels like a waste of time.
Participles as Adjectives
Finally, there are participles used as adjectives, which are what most people commonly associate with this part of speech. When used as adjectives, participles often end in an “-ing” or an “-ed”, similar to present and past participles, but there are some exceptions. Some examples include the following:
- The crumpled shirt laid on the floor.
- The shopping mall was open late.
- The broken window needed to be fixed.
What is a Dangling Participle?
Now that we have some understanding of the variety of participles available in the English language, we can better understand the issue of dangling participles, and identify ways to alter a sentence to eliminate them.
In all the examples above, the adjectival participles and the nouns they modify are clearly linked, i.e., the shirt is crumpled, the mall is for shopping, and the window was broken. Given how flexible the English language can be, there are some instances and examples of syntax that almost make sense and are nearly grammatically correct. This is the strange limbo of language where dangling participles can be found.
Essentially, a dangling participle—almost always found at the beginning of a sentence—occurs in the context of a participle phrase. Such a phrase loses its meaning if the participle is considered as being “separate”. Some examples of a participle phrase include:
- “Running through the corridor”
- “Illuminating her turn signal”
- “Shattered by the news”
While these phrases are perfectly correct in their self-contained grammar, if they are placed at the beginning of a sentence and the rest of the sentence doesn’t match up with the modifying phrase, it is called a “dangling participle”. It is easier to illustrate this by using the examples above.
- “Running through the corridor, the paintings were a blur.”
- “Illuminating her turn signal, the car spun around the curve.”
- “Shattered by the news, the day suddenly seemed endless.”
In the above examples, there is a mismatch between the participle and the object it is modifying (grammatically speaking). More specifically, the paintings were not running, the car was not illuminating the turn signal, and the day was not shattered. These dangling participles at the beginning of sentences are often overlooked, as readers can intuit what the writer intends, but they are technically incorrect, from a grammatical perspective. Furthermore, for people attempting to learn or understand English, this sort of minor error can be confusing and lead to a confusion of meaning.
How to Fix a Dangling Participle?
As suggested above, the use of a dangling participle isn’t the end of the world for a writer, but there are some easy fixes that can clarify the intention of a sentence and make it more readily understandable. Again, we’ll use the examples above with slight tweaks to show how a dangling participle can be eliminated with a minimum of effort.
- “Running through the corridor, I saw the paintings as a blur.”
- “Illuminating her turn signal, Jennifer spun the car around the curve.”
- “Shattered by the news, she began to push through the seemingly endless day.”
While the meanings of the above sentences remain largely the same, the participles are now properly matched up with the subjects of the sentences, i.e., I was running, Jennifer was illuminating, and she was shattered.
A Final Word
This might seem like a rather negligible piece of English grammar, but similar issues arise in other languages as well, so this concept is applicable across linguistics as a whole. If you want to clearly express your meaning, and be better understood by those who speak English as a second language, recognizing and avoiding this minor linguistic pitfall will certainly help!
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- Voice: Form and Function edited by Barbara A. Fox