Dangling Participles

How to keep dangling participles from grasping the closest noun.

Mignon Fogarty,
July 25, 2013
Episode #208

Page 2 of 2

When you dangle a participle, it means your participial phrase is hanging there in your sentence with no proper subject in sight. They hate that as much as you hate it when a friend stands you up for lunch.

Here’s an example:

Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.

The birds are the only subject in the sentence, and they directly follow the participial phrase. The participial phrase has to grab on to something, so it grabs the only subject—the birds. So what that sentence says is that the birds were hiking the trail, and that's probably not what I mean. There was probably somebody hiking the trail and hearing the birds chirping loudly.

We can fix it by adding the proper subject right after the participial phrase:

Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.

Here's another dangling modifier:

Wishing I could sing, the high notes seemed to taunt me.

Did you see the problem? The high notes are the only subject in the sentence, so the participial phrase "wishing I could sing" attaches to that noun because it doesn't want to dangle. That makes a sentence that says the high notes wish I could sing. If they were capable of wishing, they might wish I could sing, but what I'm really trying to say in that sentence is

Wishing I could sing, I feel taunted by the high notes.

In that sentence, "wishing I could sing" correctly modifies the subject "I," and it makes a lot more sense than imagining cringing high notes.


So to sum up, a dangling participle modifies the wrong noun. Usually you've left the subject implied and are taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean, which is generally not a good writing strategy. You fix a dangling modifier by putting the proper subject in the sentence, usually right after the participle or participial phrase.The flying dust tickled his nose. Rising on the horizon, the blazing sun signaled a brand new day.

* Some people call these participial clauses or participial units.

**The original version of this article had drug instead of dragged. As I wrote in my Dragged Versus Drug article, I grew up using the wrong word, and unfortunately, I missed it again here. My apologies.


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