Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Dangling Participles and Misplaced Modifiers


A dangler is like an errant booger and just as unsightly. It occurs when a descriptive word or phrase—usually a participle, participial phrase, or other modifying phrase—becomes detached from the word it’s describing. Unmoored from its subject, the dangler floats away to cause confusion and, often, unintentional hilarity.

The dangers of dangling modifiers

How to Spot a Dangler


A modifying phrase always links itself to the closest subject—whether or not it’s the subject the writer intended. Think of it as a teenager with more affection than judgement, quick to form an attachment to an inappropriate object.

  • Glowing and beeping, we stared up at the alien craft in awe.

Here, “glowing and beeping” attaches itself to the closest subject, we. Technically, this sentence says we were the ones putting on the light show, not the alien craft. As a writer, you may think your meaning is obvious, but it might not be clear to your readers. Or they might be too busy laughing to notice it.

How to Un-Dangle a Dangler


To fix the above sentence, rearrange it so the modifying phrase is close to its intended subject.

Glowing and beeping, the alien craft filled us with awe.
We stared up in awe at the alien craft, glowing and beeping.

More Danglers Fixed


X
A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned, until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

Who is the high-wire artist, the man or the woman? As the sentence is written, it’s the man, since the modifying phrase “a consummate high-wire artist” is closest to the subject he. Rearrange the sentence so the appropriate subject is closest to its modifier, or change the modifying phrase.

A consummate high-wire artist, she was assumed to be feigning her wobbles, until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.
Knowing her to be a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned, until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

X
Upon entering the crypt, my hair stood on end.

Here the phrase “upon entering the crypt” is attached to the subject hair, which admittedly did enter the crypt but presumably not under its own steam.

Upon entering the crypt, I felt my hair stand on end.

X
Having mastered the tango and the two-step, learning the electric slide was his next goal.

The subject of this sentence is “learning the electric slide,” an intangible concept that can’t be said to have mastered the tango or any other dance. The intended subject of the phrase “having mastered the tango and the two-step” is the unstated he, which needs to be added.

Having mastered the tango and the two-step, he set learning the electric slide as his next goal.
Since he’d mastered the tango and the two-step, learning the electric slide was his next goal.

Having mastered the tango and the two-step, he set learning the electric slide as his next goal.

X
Working in her underwater lair, Dr. Megatroid’s sinister plans soon bore fruit.

Grammatically speaking, it’s not Dr. Megatroid who is working in this sentence but her plans.

Working in her underwater lair, Dr. Megatroid soon saw her sinister plans bear fruit.

X
Shaking off her trance, the spirits were scattered in every direction.

It’s not clear who was shaking and who was scattered.

Shaking off her trance, she scattered the spirits in every direction.

X
While donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.

His sense of silliness can’t don a superhero mask.

While donning his superhero mask, he was overcome by a sense of his own silliness.
While he was donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.

Hard-to-Spot Danglers


As in the previous examples, danglers are usually found at the beginning of sentences; however, like Bolshevik spies, they may be lurking anywhere.

X
Providing enough exercise can be a challenge for owners of dogs with small apartments.

Dogs do not, as of this writing, rent apartments, small or otherwise.

Providing enough exercise can be a challenge for dog owners with small apartments.

Participial Prepositions: The Inevitable Exception


When you go hunting for dangling phrases, which often begin with participles, be aware that there are certain situations in which a participle doesn’t need a subject. Participles like assuming, based on, depending, given, including, owing to, and provided can sometimes act as prepositions, applying to the whole sentence rather than a specific subject. These participial prepositions have gravity boots: they can’t dangle.

Barring unusual weather, the balloon should reach Abyssinia by Thursday.
Concerning his wayward daughter, who had run off with a fallen seraph, he would only put a hand over his eyes and mutter about feathers.
Regarding the proposed orgy, it was generally felt that dim lighting would be better for all concerned.

Barring unusual weather, the balloon should reach Abyssinia by Thursday.

Whether or not you know a dangling participle from your elbow or a misplaced modifier from a hole in the ground, you can avoid danglers of all stripes by making sure your subject is always clear. In short, your readers should know what you’re talking about. It’s not too much for them to ask.

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