We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.
Recently, I came across this statement in something I was reading. “While sitting down outside on our deck for a late supper, the wind kicked up.”
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Pardon me? Was the wind actually sitting down outside on the deck? I doubt that was the author’s intention, but that’s what the statement means. What we’re dealing with here is called a dangling participle.
A participle is a form of a verb. A present participle, or gerund, is easy to spot, because it ends in “ing.” A gerund is used as a noun, as in, “Eating is one of my favorite pastimes.” A present participle, on the other hand, is used as an adjective (Let sleeping dogs lie.) or an adverb (Broadly speaking, we were pleased.)
The gerund doesn’t usually present a problem, since it’s use as a noun is pretty self-evident. Likewise, the present participle used as an adjective rarely causes any real problem, since it’s usually adjacent to the noun it modifies.
It’s the pesky adverbial participle that gets us into trouble. In the example used in our introduction, sitting is the present participle, and While sitting down outside on our deck for a late supper is an adverbial participle phrase modifying the clause the wind kicked up. It tells us when the wind kicked up.
Since there is no subject in this participle phrase, we don’t know who was sitting down, so we must assume the subject is the first noun we come to: wind.
Sound like much ado about nothing? Like we’re picking at hairs? Maybe from this particular example it does, so let’s take another one. My dad used to toss this example of a dangling participle at us all the time when we were growing up.
“Having eaten our lunch, the train left.”
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Really? Do you believe this train really ate our lunch before it left? Of course not, but since who ate our lunch is not specified in the statement, again, the phrase must pertain to the first noun we come to—the train.
Actually, this example differs a bit from the first one, because it contains both a present participle (having) and a past participle (eaten). The principle still applies, though.
If we want to eliminate confusion about who sat on the porch or who ate the lunch, we need to restructure our sentences a bit. We might say “While we sat down on the porch. . .” or “After we finished our lunch. . .” This eliminates any doubt or question about who did what in these two sentences.
I know—the reason you slept through grammar classes was that it was boring, and now here I am picking at nits. But it’s really more than just nit-picking. There are still readers out there who didn’t sleep through all their grammar classes, and when they see sentences like the examples cited above, it makes them wonder about our literacy as writers. Most people think we’re weird enough anyhow. Let’s not give them reason to doubt our ability to use the language.
For more information about David N. Walker, click the “About” tag above. For more information about his book, click the “Heaven Sent” tag above.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx