I’ve never been one to dangle my participles (at least not in public, anyway). Until I sat down to write this article, I didn’t realize that a dangling participle is what it was called.
So really, I knew what a dangling participle was in practice, but didn’t know that was the name for it. When I did discover what it was, I had to look up the textbook definition. I wasn’t really sure how to define it. Grammar experts weren’t very good at explaining it, either. Once I figured out exactly what they were trying to say, it all made sense. I’ll do the same for you and try to make sense of what a dangling participle is and how it is used (or avoided) properly.
In a nutshell, a dangling participle refers to confusing word order.
A dangling participle refers to the fact that if the structure of a sentence is not ordered properly, the meaning may be different than what is intended. Here is an example:
After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my friend brought up some oranges.
Does this mean that my friend is a fruit delivering zombie?
It is obvious that the words “rotting in the cellar for weeks” was meant to describe the oranges, not the friend. But because the friend appears between the rotting and the oranges, the train of thought of this sentence has been disrupted.
So, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get a little more technical, shall we?
A participle is a modifier that affects the object of the sentence. The word rotting describes the oranges. The oranges are the object and rotting is the modifier. A modifier is usually a descriptive verb or phrase. In order to affect each other, the modifier and the object should not be separated by another, unrelated subject, but should appear right next to each other.
My friend brought up some rotting oranges that had been in the cellar for weeks.
My friend comes first, followed by the modifier, rotting, followed by the recipient of the modifier, the oranges.
When the modifier or participle is not attached to the correct subject, it “dangles.” Hence, the dangling participle.
Here are some other fun examples.
After finishing my dinner, the waitress took my plate. The waitress did not finish my dinner, so …
After I finished my dinner, the waitress took my plate. or
The waitress took my plate after I finished my dinner.
Make sure the subject (“I”) is clear.
Man wanted to take care of gorilla that does not smoke or drink.
Hmmm, I wonder if that gorilla has been broken of his bad habits. This example makes it clear that the modifier and the subject must be near each other in the sentence. The confusion is caused by the fact that they are separated with the gorilla in between them.
Non-smoking, non-drinking man wanted to take care of gorilla. Much better. Let the gorilla have a drink if he wants to!
After finishing our homework, my teacher dismissed class. Every student’s dream, but I doubt any teacher would finish the student’s homework for them.
The teacher dismissed the class after we finished our homework. Sometimes simply changing the order of the words in the sentence can also change the apparent meaning. And make sure the subject is clear, in this case, by adding the word “we.”
Always re-read your writing to make sure the intended message is clear. And don’t let your participle dangle … at least not in front of others, anyway!