"Dangling participle" is one of those grammar phrases that does sound impressive - impressive, impenetrable, or obnoxious, depending on your attitude toward grammar. Still, it's worth having in your arsenal.

Participles are forms of verbs that act like adjectives. They modify other sentence elements, most often nouns. They can be present participles and end in -ing, or they can be past participles and end in -ed. Participles are single words, but they often form phrases, such as "having been beaten" or "looking superior."

Here's one: The running water drove her insane. "Running" is a form of the verb "to run," but here it describes water. It is not a verb in this situation.

Here's another: Baked beans at lunch are inadvisable. "Baked" is a form of the verb "to bake," but it describes beans in this case.

Here's a participial phrase: "Having eaten a very solid lunch, he decided to take a quick nap under the conference room table." (Note how "he" is the noun associated with "Having eaten.")

And here's another: "Amanda, horrified by the sounds coming from her hard drive, begged the IT department for help." ("Horrified" modifies Amanda in this case.)

So when and how do these things dangle, and why is that bad?

Let P. G. Wodehouse, the great early-20th-century British humorist, playwright, and brilliant grammarian, demonstrate:

Tail wagging merrily, Bertie took the pup for a walk.

Born at the age of forty-three, the baby was a great comfort to Mrs. Wooster.

Hmm. There is something not quite right about those sentences!

What's not right are their dangling participles. What was wagging its tail merrily? We do not think it was Bertie. And we can only hope that Mrs. Wooster did not give birth to a fully formed forty-three-year-old man. Those British ladies have stiff upper lips, but really!

In both cases, the phrase is not close enough to what it modifies. That's the problem, in most cases. In some cases, it is not so much distance as connection--sometimes the word that the participle modifies isn't even in the sentence! But in most cases it is as simple as distance. The poor participial phrase dangles out there in front of the sentences, waving in the breeze, not tucked up close to its noun, as it should be.

Wodehouse knew what he was doing, dropping those gaffes into this prose to suggest the topsy-turvy nature of his farcical universe, but we are all not so skilled. Dangling participles form a good part of those grammatical misteps that make up the bottom-of-the-column fillers in The New Yorker magazine. Here's one from that source, sent to World Wide Words a while ago, by Chuck Wuest: "a pleasant young woman with a nose ring named Rebecca, who sits at the front desk."

Clearly, it was not the nose ring that was named Rebecca. "Named" is a past participle, describing the noun "woman."

So keep your participles nicely tucked up near their nouns and save yourself the embarrassment of finding your prose exposed, on World Wide Wide Words or, worse, The New Yorker.

Of course, I am always avid for new and exciting examples of these poor participles. We can give them a good home, so I invite you, please post your worst, best, and all-time favorites here.

Message Edited by Ellen_Scordato on 06-10-2009 05:27 PM
Comments
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎06-10-2009 05:47 PM
I'm currently listening to Jasper Fforde's Well of Lost Plots and one of the first chapters during Thursday's sojurn in the well includes a Character Exchange representative who is introduced as "a small man wearing a hat named Wyatt" (the character then clarifys that his name is Wyatt, not his hat's).
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎06-10-2009 05:48 PM
Rats - spelled "clarifies" wrong and there's no edit button.  Sorry.
by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎06-11-2009 02:27 PM
Oh, that's a good one. Thank you!
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎06-11-2009 03:14 PM
JF uses a lot of grammar-related information to fuel his BookWorld and Jurisfiction (someone quoted the had-had/that-that section of WOLP in my Reccommends post earlier); he even has grammasites and a Mispeling Vyrus!
by Phil_K on ‎06-18-2009 11:12 AM

Here's one, from a late-'90s ad for a line of upscale home appliances, that has imprinted itself on my brain: "Built at the turn of the century, they fell in love with the house immediately." Wow, I sure hope I'll be able to go house hunting when I'm pushing 100!

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