I’m Not Making This Up

© 2009 Tracy Crump

I don’t remember learning about dangling participles in school. In fact, I thought dangling participles were like floppy disks (stay with me here). The first time my programmer husband introduced me to the term “floppy disk” I said, “You’re putting me on. There is no such thing.” He not only assured me floppy disks were real, he showed me one.

Unfortunately, dangling participles (or more correctly speaking, dangling modifiers) are also real, no matter how funny the term sounds or whether we learned about them in school or not. Even once we think we understand them, there they go, turning up in our sentences again. So let’s get a handle on the pesky things.

A dangling participle is a word group that acts as a modifier but fails to modify the correct word. They occur at the beginning of a sentence and may suggest but not name an actor. Therefore, readers expect the participle to modify the closest noun. When it doesn’t, the results can be confusing—if not downright funny.

Watch especially for phrases beginning with -ing verbs, infinitives (to + a verb), prepositions, and adverbial clauses. For example:

  • Browsing through the jewelry department, a necklace caught my eye. (Was the necklace shopping?)
  • To grow properly, you must water newly planted trees at least every other day. (What’s growing—you or the tree?)
  • After using a hairdryer, the appliance must be unplugged to avoid a fire hazard. (Did the hairdryer use itself?)
  • Faithfully following the instructions, the swing set was erected in two hours. (My husband would have loved a swing set that followed the instructions.)

Once you’ve identified a dangling modifier, you can repair it in one of two ways:

  • Name the actor in the modifier
  • Name the actor immediately after the modifier (as the subject of the sentence)

For example:

  • As I browsed through the jewelry department, a necklace caught my eye. OR  Browsing through the jewelry department, I spotted a necklace.
  • When my husband faithfully followed the instructions, the swing set was erected in two hours. OR Faithfully following the instructions, my husband erected the swing set in two hours.

Other misplaced modifiers can muddy our writing, too. Comedians like Groucho Marx made a living with some of them: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

But that’s a story for another day . . .

Tracy Crump has published more than 100 articles, devotionals, and short stories in publications such as Focus on the Family, Today’s Christian, Journey, Pray!, ParentLife, and CBN.com. Thirteen of her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul and Cup of Comfort. Crump serves as conference faculty for American Christian Writers, Kentucky Christian Writers, and Southeast Christian Writers and moderates an online critique group. She is a 2008 C.L.A.S.S. graduate and was named 2009 Writer of the Year at the Memphis ACW Conference.


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