Dangling Participles

How to keep dangling participles from grasping the closest noun.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #688

What Is a Participle?

Before we talk about what it means to dangle a participle, we have to answer the question What is a participle?

It’s a tough question because participles have a few different jobs. Today, we’re only going to talk about their job that makes them look like adjectives. They tell you more about the noun that follows.

Participles can be in the present tense or the past tense, and the present participle always ends with "ing." For example, "dream" is a verb, and "dreaming" is its present participle. "Speed" is a verb, and "speeding" is its present participle. To use the verb, you could say, "He will speed on the freeway."  "Speed" is an action, a verb.

To use "speeding" as an adjective-like participle, you could say, "Follow that speeding car." "Speeding" acts something like an adjective modifying the noun "car." It tells you what the car is doing—what kind of car it is—a speeding car.

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Here's another example: "hike" is a verb, and "hiking" is the present participle. To use the verb, you could say "Let's hike the trail." To use the participle, you could say, "Wait for the hiking campers to get back.”  "Hiking," the participle, tells you what the campers are doing—what kind of campers they are—hiking campers.

Participles have another role too: They help form the perfect and progressive verb tenses, but we won't talk about those here. (See this article for information on verb tenses.)

What Is a Participial Phrase?

So now I trust that you understand how to use verbs and their participles, but to understand dangling participles, we need to talk about participial phrases. These are just phrases that contain a participle and modify the subject of the sentence.

They can include words besides the participle, such as prepositions, pronouns, and nouns, but for now, we'll just focus on the idea that they contain a participle like "speeding" or "hiking." The way they modify the subject isn't as straightforward as a single adjective modifying a single noun, but the participial phrase is still modifying a noun or noun phrase—the subject.

Here are some examples to help make it more clear:

Floating in the pool, I marveled at the clouds.

"Floating in the pool" is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, "I." "Floating" is the participle in the phrase "floating in the pool." It describes what I am doing.

Here's another one:

Biting his victim, the vampire felt a momentary thrill.

"Biting his victim" is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, "the vampire." "Biting" is the participle in the phrase "biting his victim." It describes what the vampire is doing.

And one last example:

Beating you over the head with examples, I hope to make you understand participial phrases.

"Beating you over the head with examples" is the participial phrase modifying the subject, "I." "Beating" is the participle in the phrase "beating you over the head with examples." It describes what I am doing.

A dangling participle modifies an unintended subject.

In all three of those examples, the subject that was being modified by the participial phrase came right after the phrase. It was sticking close to the modifier so you couldn't miss it. The participial phrase doesn't have to be at the beginning of a sentence, but that is the place where it's most likely to dangle, so we'll stick with that format today.

Dangling Participles

Now we're ready to learn about dangling participles.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.