How to Avoid the Dangling Participle

‘A dangling modifier is a phrase (or clause) out of place, as a weed is a plant out of place, making a mess of the garden.’ (Treddinick, 2008, p. 201)

This is one of the most commonly encountered errors in editing: the dangling modifier. As Treddinick suggests, it truly does make a mess of writing. This article explores the dangling participle—a dangling modifier that begins with a participle—and discusses strategies for avoiding it in your writing.

Here are some problematic dangling modifiers to get us started:

Tony drove home with his vegetables, following a police car.

Laying eggs, Lucy chased the hen out of the coup.

Enjoying views from the balcony, the birds sang a sweet morning song to me.

We will come back to these later in the article. To begin, let’s remind ourselves about participles and learn about participle phrases.

What is a Participle Phrase?

We know from our earlier article, ‘Understanding Verb Forms—Part Three’, that present participles end in ‘ing’. They are verbs that describe a continuous action (‘dreaming’, ‘eating’, ‘walking’, ‘frying’, ‘typing’ etc.)

A participle phrase is a group of words—containing a participle—that modifies a sentence’s subject. In the earlier examples, the participle phrases have been italicised. Here are some more:

After massaging her temples, Sarah felt relief from her headache.

Washing the dishes, Albert felt a sense of satisfaction.

Lying on the deck, the children gazed at the stars.

Each of these italicised participle phrases modifies the subject that comes directly after it (i.e. Sarah, Albert and the children, respectively). The participle phrases describe what these subjects are doing.

The Dangling Participle

When a participle phrase ‘dangles’ it means that the modifier is out of place or too far away from its subject. As a result, meaning is obscured.

Mark Treddinick (2008) confesses to his own dangling modifier, ‘I saw an eastern quoll last night, looking out my kitchen window’ (p. 201). Does he mean the eastern quoll was in his kitchen, looking out the window? Or does he mean that he was looking out the window, and saw an eastern quoll?

He probably means the latter, but the modifier, ‘looking out the window’, dangles too far from the subject (‘I’) he intends it to modify. Instead, it’s attached itself to the closest noun in the sentence (‘the eastern quoll’), leading to confusion.

Let’s reconsider the problematic examples I gave at the beginning of the article. See how each of these participle phrases dangles too far away from the subject it intends to modify, with amusing results:

Tony drove home with his vegetables, following a police car.

Laying eggs, Lucy chased the hen out of the coup.

Enjoying views from the balcony, the birds sang a sweet morning song to me.

Who is following the police car, Tony or his vegetables? Is Lucy laying eggs, or was she chasing a hen who was laying eggs? Are the birds enjoying a view from the balcony, or is the speaker?

Correcting Dangling Participles

These examples can be corrected by bringing the participle phrase closer to the subject they are intended to modify—Tony, the hen, and me, respectively. For some of these sentences, it’s a matter of reversing the order, for others it’s a matter of containing the participle phrase within commas as an aside:

Following a police car, Tony drove home with his vegetables.

Lucy chased the hen, who was laying eggs, out of the coup.

While enjoying views from the balcony, I listened to the birds’ sweet morning song.

We hope this article has given you an introduction to dangling modifiers. Remember, a dangling modifier attaches itself to the wrong noun in a sentence and creates confusion. To check these, make sure your modifying participle phrases are right beside the noun you intend it to modify.

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