How to Avoid Dangling Participles

Descriptions must have something to describe. However, to English speakers participles that function a descriptions tend to cause as many problems as a double-date with an ex. Participles look like verbs, but they don’t function as verbs. To avoid making common mistakes when using participles, you must place them properly.

Read this sentence:

Munching a buttered sausage, the cholesterol really builds up.

As you see, the sentence begins with a verb form, munching, but munching isn’t the verb in the sentence. It’s a participle. (The real verb in the sentence is builds.) But participles have to describe something or someone. Munching must be tacked onto a muncher. So who is munching? You? Eggworthy? Everyone in the local diet club? In the sentence, no one is munching. Descriptive verb forms that have nothing appropriate to describe are called danglers or dangling modifiers. To correct the sentence, add a muncher:

Munching a buttered sausage, Eggworthy smiled and waved to his cardiologist.

In sentences beginning with a descriptive verb form, such as a participle, the subject must perform the action mentioned in the descriptive verb form. In the sample sentence, Eggworthy is the subject of the sentence. The sentence begins with a descriptive verb form, munching a buttered sausage. Thus, Eggworthy is the one who is munching. If you want the cardiologist to munch, say

Munching a buttered sausage, the cardiologist returned Eggworthy’s wave.

Here’s another example:

Sitting on the park bench, the soaring space shuttle briefly delighted the little boy.

Oh really? The space shuttle is sitting on a bench and soaring at the same time? Defies the laws of physics, don’t you think? (Also, park rules clearly state that no intergalactic vehicles are allowed on benches.) Try again:

Sitting on the park bench, the little boy was briefly delighted by the soaring space shuttle.

Now little boy is the subject of the sentence, so the introductory description applies to him, not to the space shuttle. Another correction may be

The soaring space shuttle briefly delighted the little boy who was sitting on the park bench.

Now the descriptive words sitting on the park bench are placed next to little boy, who in fact is the one sitting, being delighted by the soaring space shuttle.

This topic is so popular on the SAT that it deserves another example. Here’s a faulty sentence:

Skidding over the icy pavement, the old oak tree couldn’t escape the speeding sports car.

You spotted the problem, right? The tree is the subject of the sentence, but a tree can't be the thing skidding over the icy pavement. That sort of thing happens only in Harry Potter movies. Now for the better version:

Skidding over the icy pavement, the speeding sports car slammed into the old oak tree.

Now the speeding sports car is skidding. No problem. Well, no grammar problem anyway. The traffic cop sees the situation a little differently.

Now take a little test to see if you can determine which sentence is correct?

A. Sailing swiftly across the sea, Samantha’s boat was surely a beautiful sight.
B. Sailing swiftly across the sea, the sight of the beautiful boat made Samantha sob.

Answer: Sentence A is correct. Sailing swiftly across the sea describes Samantha’s boat. Samantha’s boat is performing that action. Sentence B is wrong because in sentence B sight, the subject, is sailing. (And of course, a sight can’t sail.)

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