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Dangling Participle Phrases Annoy the Readers

Dangling participle phrases are the most common grammatical mistake that I see in published fiction nowadays. Because they contain several words, they stick out like blight on the landscape, unlike little one-word mistakes like subject/verb agreement that can almost be excused as a typo. But now you can learn what a participle phrase is and how to use it correctly.

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a participle is “a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective; especially : an English verbal form that has the function of an adjective and at the same time shows such verbal features as tense and voice and capacity to take an object.”

For example, take a present-tense verb like “plastering,” or a past-tense verb like “plastered,” and use it like an adjective to add description to a noun:

Plastering his face with mud, he hoped it would smooth his complexion,
or
Plastered on daiquiris, he leaped into the river.

The words plastering and plastered are participles. The phrases Plastering his face with mud and Plastered on daiquiris are participle phrases that modify the noun he. See how they work as adjectives to give you more descriptive information about him? He’s not just a male pronoun hanging in mid-air. He is putting mud on his face. Or he’s drunk. Either way, you know a lot more about him, thanks to those participle phrases.

The problem comes when you move the noun to the wrong place in the sentence. It should be close to the participle phrase. In the examples above, your noun should be directly after the comma and serve as the subject of the sentence. If you move your noun too far away from its participle phrase, that participle phrase will have to modify something, often with some unintentionally goofy results. For example:

Plastered on daiquiris, the river accepted him into its cold embrace.

Here, your man (previously represented by the noun he) is still in the sentence, but you have moved his noun far away from its participle phrase and actually made it the object of the sentence, him). Remember sentence objects? That is, on what object did the subject (here, the river) do a verb? The river accepted him. The river is now the subject of the sentence in its new position snuggled up to the participle phrase – which implies that the river was plastered on daiquiris when it accepted him into its cold embrace. That river must have had a great time at happy hour!

Many new writers think, “Oh, come on. That interpretation makes no sense, and it’s obvious that I meant that he was drunk when the river accepted him. The readers will know what I mean.” Yes, they will figure it out, but not before getting jolted out of the escapist experience of the story. You want your writing to be so smooth that your readers forget that they are reading and just start experiencing the story in their minds as if they are watching a movie.

Examples of Dangling Participles:

Stuffed in the stolen handbag, the cop found the victim’s identification. This states that the cop is stuffed inside the stolen handbag. Rewrite: The cop found the victim’s identification stuffed in the stolen handbag.

Considering how ruthless they were, the Vikings were destined to terrorize medieval Europe. This sentence has complicated problems. First, if you locate the subject (the Vikings) and the participle phrase (Considering how ruthless they were), you realize that the sentence literally says that the Vikings were destined to terrorize because they were considering their own ruthlessness. Here, we have a dangling participle problem and a viewpoint problem. The Vikings were not known for introspection, especially when they were in the middle of terrorizing something, so the sentence needs a rewrite to clarify that we are in the viewpoint of modern-day historians: When we consider how ruthless they were, we realize that the Vikings were destined to terrorize medieval Europe.

Read more at Dangling Participles. Copyright 2002 by Damen.

Grammar books can be boring, but this one at Amazon.com is fun: The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

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