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.
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Ahh, 9th grade English class is coming back to me. you know, if you asked me to tell you what a dangling participle, a present or past participle, I wouldn’t have been able to define it. However, I do find myself correcting sentences written that way. I was a straight A English student, but sometimes I forget the meaning of the terms. Oh, how I hated diagraming sentences! I’m so glad you’re writing this series, David! It’s really important stuff!
Thanks, Marcia. I sometimes wonder if anyone cares about grammar these days. Good to hear confirmations like yours.
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thanks for posting this, a good reminder for me.
Glad to help, Ellie.
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I have to agree with Lynn. They can be very entertaining. Fortunately, I think this may be one mistake I don’t often make.
Maybe you can be amused by how frequently I type “to” instead of “the” or “too” or “two,” Cordelia. But it’s not really me – it’s my keyboard.
Dangling participles do lead to the best errors. Sometimes naughty ones. Thank you for giving me the summer off as well as some posts to have students look back to in the fall. It’s hard to think of examples on the spot!
I do remember this awesome error: “Having been ridden all night and then blown, resting at the side of the road sagged his ole girl. It’s not really a dangling participle, more like non-specific language. But the student was talking about a TIRE that had popped. I pointed out that it sounded like he was talking about a HOOKER. He quickly revised. And never dangled his participle at me again.
Guess you have to be careful with all sorts of things that dangle, Renee.
But dangling participles are among the most amusing of grammar mistakes! If you educate everyone, then what will we have left to entertain us? LOL!
Fear not, Lynn. I doubt if I’m making any great changes in anyone’s writing or speaking. *sigh*
I beg to differ, David. I think you will be helping a lot of us sharpen up our skills. Reminders like your posts can only be helpful. The more we tweet your messages, the better! Thanks!