In English, a dangling participle is a participle that does not seem to modify anything at all. In this case, the word being modified is either left out of the sentence or is not located close to the modifier in the sentence. Another way to put it is that a dangling participle is a modifier looking for a word to modify.
As an example, “If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost billions of dollars.” It is interesting that the dangling participle, if found guilty, seems to imply that even the lawsuit itself will be found guilty. Adding the missing pronoun or noun, such as “the company,” “him,” or “them,” to this sentence will fix it. This sentence would read, “If the company is found guilty, it will lose billions.” This sentence makes it clear that the company may be found guilty and be required to pay billions of dollars.
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Participles in Subordinate Clauses
The first thing we need to do before we can discuss dangling modifiers is to understand what participles are and what participle phrases are. The word “participle” refers to a verb that describes a continuous action in a continuous manner, such as dreaming, eating, walking, and frying.
A participial verb is a form of a verb that acts as an adjective. In grammar, a participle phrase is a group of words that include a participle and are used to modify the subject of a sentence. There is a general rule that participatory phrases are part of a subordinate clause, which means that they cannot stand on their own. There is always an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence that is described by the participle in such phrases. In the following examples of participle phrases in subordinate clauses, where the participle phrases are printed in italics, you will see that the participle phrases are used correctly:
- As a result of running the marathon, Joe felt exhausted after the race.
- Sue felt a sense of satisfaction after cleaning out the messy drawer and putting it away.
- The hikers were able to see many trees as they walked along the trail.
In the following text, each of the italicized participle phrases modifies the subject that follows directly after it—it is clear that Joe was running the marathon, Sue was cleaning out the messy drawer, and the hikers were walking the trail. I believe that all of these particle phrases are being used correctly due to the fact that all of them are placed directly adjacent to the nouns that they modify.
Dangling Participle Examples
By contrast, dangling participles are participles or participle phrases that are not placed next to the nouns that they modify, causing huge confusion and not a small number of unintentionally humorous grammatical errors as a result. There must be a noun to modify a participle, just as there must be a noun to modify an adjective. As the name implies, a dangling participle is one that is left dangling out in the cold, without the ability to be modified by a noun. As an example:
- In every corner of the yard, there were dandelions sprouting out of the ground.
There is a clause in this sentence that has the phrase “Looking around the yard” just before the noun (and subject of the sentence) “dandelions.” This makes it appear as if the dandelions are looking around the yard. It would be best for the writer to revise the sentence as follows in order to correct the problem and give the dangling modifier a noun to modify:
- It was evident when I looked around the yard that dandelions sprouted in every corner of the yard.
The sentence now makes clear that it is the “I” who is looking around the yard at the sprouting sea of dandelions, since dandelions are unable to see.
As an example, consider this sentence, “The farmer presented his favorite chicken after laying a large egg.” In this sentence, the phrase “After laying a large egg” is placed next to the words “the farmer.” This gives the impression to the reader that the farmer is laying an egg of a very large size. In the revised version of the sentence, it is clear that the chicken is laying an egg, not the farmer, which is why it is grammatically correct to write: “After laying a large egg, the chicken was presented as the farmer’s favorite.”
It is not uncommon for even the greatest literary figures to fall prey to dangling modifiers. A line from Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, reads as follows: “Sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me.” You would be able to correct the sentence by including the missing pronoun, which in this case would be “I,” for example, “I was stung by the serpent while sleeping in my orchard.”
It is also possible to find mundane, but unintentionally funny, examples of dangling participles. As an example, one might write: “Running after the school bus, the backpack bounced from side to side.” In this case, the writer can insert the first person, the second person, or the third person into the sentence and place the participle phrase next to it.
A revised sentence that eliminates the dangling modifier could be written, “Running after the school bus, the girl felt her backpack bounce.” This revision makes it clear that the “girl” is running after the bus as she feels her backpack bounce. The dangling modifier has also been eliminated from the sentence, which initially left the reader with an amusing mental image of a backpack sprouting legs and dashing after a school bus as a result of the dangling modifier.
Funny Dangling Participle Examples
Whenever possible, do not use dangling participles in your sentences because they can cause them to sound awkward and can give them unintended meanings. There are several humorous examples given by the Writing Center at the University of Madison:
- As the salad dressing slowly oozed across the floor, Marvin watched as it spread.
- While waiting for the Moonpie, the candy machine began to hum loudly in anticipation of its arrival.
- In the process of leaving the market, the bananas fell to the ground.
- There was a plastic container filled with brownies that she handed out to the children.
- As I walked down the stairs for dinner, I smelled the oysters coming down.
Firstly, the dangling participle in the first sentence makes it seem as if Marvin is the one who is “oozing across the floor.” Secondly, the second sentence seems to imply that the candy machine, itself, is waiting for the Moonpie. As seen in sentences 3-5, the bananas seem to be coming out of the market, the children look as if they are “trapped” in the plastic containers, and the oysters seem to be coming “down the stairs” for dinner.
There are two ways to correct these sentences: either add the proper noun or pronoun that is missing, or rearrange the sentence so that the participial phrase appears next to the noun, proper noun, or pronoun it modifies:
- It was Marvin who watched as the salad dressing oozed slowly across the floor as he walked.
- I heard the candy machine begin to hum loudly as I waited for the Moonpie to appear.
- When I was coming out of the market, I dropped the bananas on the ground.
- It was with great pleasure that she handed out brownies, stored in plastic containers, to the children.
- The aroma of oysters greeted me as I descended the stairs for dinner.
Be careful not to use dangling modifiers or you run the risk of giving your readers an unintended reason to laugh at your work if you do.