Painless Grammar Workshop

Unit 2: Dangerously Dangling Participles

At the end of unit 1, I got up on the soapbox and expounded on why Grammar Is Important. Now, I'd like to take a moment to get back up on the soap box and say, "But Wait! There's More!"

Grammar certainly helps you to communicate clearly. Writing that is ungrammatical is hard to read and hard to understand. However, good grammar is not enough. A sentence can be constructed properly, punctuated flawlessly, and spelled perfectly and still be BLOODY AWFUL! The goal of the first three sessions of the Painless Grammar Workshops is to help you with the mechanics. Then, we'll discuss writing style.

Okay, end of soapbox speech number two.

Today's subject is Dangerously Dangling Participles. Again, we'll start with some definitions.

A participle is a verb that is used as an adjective. (Yes, just when you thought you had the parts of speech figured out, you find out they masquerade as each other.) Some examples of participles:

  • Follow the bouncing ball.
  • His wrinkled skin showed his age.
  • The pounding surf soothed her.

How, you ask, can you tell whether a verb is being a verb or being a participle? Since participles are modifiers, they are expendable. Removing the word may change the flavor of the sentence, but it should not break the structure of the sentence. In the examples above, you can remove bouncing, wrinkled, and pounding and still have sentences. Remove follow, showed, and soothed, on the other hand, and you do not.

A participial phrase is a phrase (a group of words that does not form a complete sentence) based on a participle. For example:

  • The girl walking toward you is my sister.
  • The food, burnt to a crisp, was inedible.
  • He watched the boys playing baseball.

Okay, so how do you tell if a verb phrase is acting as a participial phrase? When the phrase immediately follows the word it is modifying, you can try the that/who is/are test.


If you can insert that is/are or who is/are before the verb phrase and have the sentence still mean the same thing, you've got yourself a participle.

  • The girl who is walking toward you is my sister.
  • The food that was burnt to a crisp was inedible.
  • He watched the boys who were playing baseball.

However (and this is where the dangling frequently occurs), participles and participial phrases don't have to follow the word they modify. They are often placed at the beginning of the sentence.

  • Smiling for the camera, she didn't look like a murderer.
  • Devastated, the man finally accepted her refusal.
  • Excited by the news, I had trouble falling asleep.

They can also be placed at the end of the sentence.

  • He raced onto the stage, grinning.
  • The puppy slept fitfully, chasing dream rabbits.

So, what's this dangling business, you ask? (Okay, so you didn't, but I'll tell you anyway.)

Dangling participles are ones that are placed in the sentence in such a way that they modify the wrong thing. For example:

Gasping for air, the undertow pulled Brian beneath the water's surface.

The problem? Undertows don't gasp.

The sentence can be fixed in a couple of ways.

Gasping for air, Brian was pulled beneath the water's surface by the undertow.


The undertow pulled Brian, gasping for air, beneath the water's surface.

Often, dangling participles don't seem that bad. After all, we all know what the writer meant. However, be aware that dangling modifiers can be the source of unintended humor. The last thing we need, when we're trying to build suspense, is to have the reader burst out laughing because we wrote something like this:

Floating pickled and naked in the vat of brine, Susan stared in horror at the corpse.

© Copyright 2018 by Karen Babcock

Last modified: Saturday, 09-Jun-2018 20:12:49 EDT
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