Make Your Editor Cry: Dangling Participles
A participle describes, clarifies, or gives more detail about a concept. A dangling participle is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence, in short, an unintended subject.
In other words, a participle intended to modify a noun—much like an adjective—which is not actually present in the text is called a dangling participle.
To understand how this happens, first look to proper participles, and proper participial phrases.
Proper participles: Compare these two sentences:
The water tasted delicious.
The filtered water tasted delicious.
In the second sentence, the word filtered is a participle that modifies the noun water. It’s formed from the verb filter, and it’s acting as an adjective modifying the noun, water.
Participles can appear in the present tense or the past tense. The present participle always ends with “ing.” For example, “dream” is a verb, and “dreaming” is its present participle. “Speed” is a verb, and “speeding” is its present participle.
To use the verb, you could say, “He will speed on the freeway.” In that sentence, “speed” is the verb.
To use “speeding” as an adjective-like participle, you could say “Follow that speeding car.” In that sentence, “speeding” acts something like an adjective modifying the noun “car.” It tells you what the car is doing, so it informs you as to what kind of car it is. It is a “speeding car.”
Observe the following two sentences:
The stars traveled from east to west.
The shooting stars traveled from east to west.
In the second sentence, the word shooting is a participle that modifies the noun stars. It’s formed from the verb shoot, and it’s acting as an adjective modifying the noun, stars.
Participial phrases: Participial phrases are phrases that contain a participle and modify the subject of the sentence. Participial phrases can include words besides the participle, such as prepositions, pronouns, and nouns.
Floating in the pool, I marveled at the clouds.
Biting his victim, the vampire felt a momentary thrill.
While these sentences may read as a bit awkward, they do not make dangling participles.
“Floating in the pool” is the participial phrase that modifies the sentence subject, “I.” “Floating” is the participle in the phrase “floating in the pool.” It describes what I am doing.
“Biting his victim” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “the vampire.” “Biting” is the participle in the phrase “biting his victim.” It describes what the vampire is doing.
In the above examples, the subject that is being modified by the participial phrase appears right after the phrase. The participial phrase doesn’t have to come at the beginning of a sentence, but this is the most common arrangement for dangling participles.
Dangling Participles: A dangling participle occurs when the participial phrase is present in the sentence with no proper subject it is intended to modify anywhere in the sentence.
Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.
“The birds” are the only subject in the sentence, and they directly follow the participial phrase. So, the implied meaning is that the birds were chirping loudly while they hiked down the trail. This is likely not the meaning the writer intended to convey. The fix is to insert the proper subject into the sentence.
Hiking the trail, Jane heard the birds chirping loudly.
Sitting on the park bench, the sun disappeared behind the clouds.
Sitting on the park bench is a dangling participle that apparently modifies the subject “the sun” since the intended subject isn’t even in the sentence. Once more, the fix is to insert the proper subject into the sentence.
Sitting on the park bench, I watched the sun disappear behind the clouds.
As an aside, to fix the sentence entirely, just write it more clearly in the first place.
I sat on the park bench and watched the sun disappear behind the clouds.
Wishing I could sing, the high notes seemed to taunt me.
The pronoun me is the direct object of the verb seemed and not the subject of the sentence. Because the participial phrase is “Wishing I could sing” then the only subject of this sentence is “the high notes.” Since “the high notes” are incapable of wishing I could sing, the above sentence amounts to a dangling participle. To fix the problem restate the intended subject.
Wishing I could sing, I seem taunted by the high notes.
As an aside, to fix the sentence just write it more clearly in the first place.
I wish I could sing, but the high notes seem to taunt me.
Gregg Bridgeman is the Editor-in-Chief at Olivia Kimbrell Press. He is husband to best-selling Christian author Hallee Bridgeman and parent to three. He continues to proudly serve in the US Armed Forces and has done so in either an active or reserve capacity for more than twenty years as an airborne and air assault qualified paratrooper, earning a Bronze Star for his service. Most importantly, he was ordained in October of 2001 after surrendering his life to Christ decades earlier.