On participles and why/how NOT to dangle them

I threatened promised to write a post about dangling participles.  Here it is.

First, a few simple facts:

— A participle is the -ing form of a verb.  Write is a verb; writing is the present participle of that verb.  (Pay attention to the word present — it will be important later.)

— A participle is supposed to modify the subject of the sentence.

— A bad thing happens when a participle is left dangling, unconnected to the subject: it implies that the subject is doing something that it isn’t… and the results can be quite funny embarrassing.

If you want more details of definition, read what Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) has to say on the topic.

The reason I’m blogging about this — aside from the obvious:  Mercenary Proofreader doesn’t approve of writers dangling their participles all over the place — is that, not long ago, I read a science fiction novel that was quite good… except this one problem, which was far too common.  (Yeah, I know some readers/reviewers will say, “This novel was full of errors on every single page — it was awful,” when what they really mean is, “This novel had one typo on page 47 and another on page 332, and although these two errors didn’t detract from my enjoyment in reading it, I still need a ‘reason’ to give this novel a low rating.”  This is not one of those cases.  Notice how I say the novel I’m talking about was a good story and well-written?)

Anyway.  Here are a few examples from that novel:

With long hair trailing laughter, I watched [the girl] swing with her father.

As written, the sentence says that the narrator is the one with long hair and laughter; in actuality, it’s the girl on the swing.

Sitting a the table by candlelight, the house was calm and quiet.

Wait, what?  The house is sitting at the table?  *shakes head*

Although not actually dangling participles (there’s no mismatch of action and subject), another error that often happens with -ing verbs is implied simultaneous action when there is no way the actions could happen at the same time.  Remember, the -ing ending means the action is happening in the present.

Opening the window, I took off my clothes.

Filling the tub [with dead bad guys], I left the room.

Hammering in the last stake, I sat in the swing under the oak tree.

Drawing the blinds to let them sleep, I closed the door.

Any of these last four sentences (or the many others like them throughout the novel) could have been easily corrected by adding a single word to show order of actions:  After hammering in the last stake, I sat in the swing under the oak tree.

Sometimes, I suppose, it may not matter over-much if the reader misunderstands what is happening in what order.  I cannot think of any examples, but I will admit that it could happen.  Maybe.  At other times  — any time the plot is affected by the order in which things happen — the sequence of events needs to be clear and accurate.  Otherwise you end up with a character who is running down the stairs shooting at the bad guys while simultaneously kissing his wife and promising never to do stupidly heroic stuff again without talking it over with her first.


About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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