by Mignon Fogarty
What Is a Participle?
Before we talk about what it means to dangle a participle, we have to answer the question What is a participle?
A participle is a verb that acts like an adjective. The present participle form of a verb usually ends with "ing." For example, "dream" is a verb, and "dreaming" is its present participle. "Swim" is a verb, and "swimming" is its present participle. To use the verb, you could say, "We'll swim after class." "Swim" is an action, a verb.
To use the participle "swimming" as an adjective, you could say "We'll meet at the swimming pool." "Swimming" acts like an adjective modifying the noun "pool." It tells you what kind of pool it is--a swimming pool.
Here's another example: "hike" is a verb, and "hiking" is the present participle. To use the verb, you could say "Let's hike the trail." To use the participle, you could say, "Don't forget your hiking boots." "Hiking," the participle, tells you what kind of boots I want you to bring.
A dangling participle modifies an unintended noun.
What Is a Participial Phrase?
So now I trust that you understand how to use verb and their participles, but to understand dangling participles, we need to talk about participial phrases.* These are just phrases that contain a participle and modify the subject of the sentence.
They can include words besides the participle, such as prepositions, pronouns, and nouns, but for now, we'll just focus on the idea that they contain a participle like "swimming" or "hiking." The way they modify the subject isn't as straightforward as a single adjective modifying a single noun, but the participial phrase is still modifying a noun--the subject.
Here are some examples to help make it more clear:
Floating in the pool, I marveled at the clouds.
"Floating in the pool" is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, "I." "Floating" is the participle in the phrase "floating in the pool."
Here's another one:
Biting his victim, the vampire felt a momentary thrill.
"Biting his victim" is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, "the vampire." "Biting" is the participle in the phrase "biting his victim."
And one last example:
Beating you over the head with examples, I hope to make you understand participial phrases.
"Beating you over the head with examples" is the participial phrase modifying the subject, "I." "Beating" is the participle in the phrase "beating you over the head with examples."
In all three of those examples, the subject that was being modified by the participial phrase came right after the phrase. It was sticking close to the modifier so you couldn't miss it. The participial phrase doesn't have to be at the beginning of a sentence, but that is the place where it's most likely to dangle, so we'll stick with that format today.
Now we're ready to learn about dangling participles, because when you dangle a participle, it means your participial phrase is hanging there in your sentence with no proper subject in sight. They hate that as much as you hate it when a friend stands you up for lunch.
Here’s an example:
Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly.
The birds are the only subject in the sentence, and they directly follow the participial phrase. The participial phrase has to grab on to something so it's not just dangling there, so it grabs the only subject--the birds. So what that sentence says is that the birds were hiking the trail, and that's probably not what I mean. There was probably somebody hiking the trail and hearing the birds chirping loudly.
We can fix it by adding the proper subject right after the participial phrase:
Hiking the trail, Squiggly and Aardvark heard birds chirping loudly.
Here's another dangling modifier:
Wishing I could sing, the high notes seemed to taunt me.
Did you see the problem? The high notes are the only subject in the sentence, so the participial phrase "wishing I could sing" attaches to that noun because it doesn't want to dangle. That makes a sentence that says the high notes wish I could sing. If they were capable of wishing, they might wish I could sing, but what I'm really trying to say in that sentence is
Wishing I could sing, I feel taunted by the high notes.
In that sentence, "wishing I could sing" correctly modifies the subject "I," and it makes a lot more sense than imagining cringing high notes.
So to sum up, a dangling participle modifies the wrong noun. Usually you've left the subject implied and are taking for granted that your reader will know what you mean, which is generally not a good writing strategy. You fix a dangling modifier by putting the proper subject in the sentence, usually right after the participle or participial phrase.
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Underline the verb and circle the participle in these sentences.
The swimming pool heaved during the earthquake.
She dropped her curling iron.
I have a hammering headache.
Every day Julie is thankful for running water.
The battering ram failed the test.
Underline the participial phrase and draw an arrow to the subject it is modifying.
Ordering pizza, I pondered Italian seasonings.
[participial phrase=ordering pizza, subject=I]
Hoping for a raise, Loubell scheduled the meeting for a time when her boss was most often in a good mood.
[participial phrase=hoping for a raise, subject=Loubell]
Flailing in the surf, Pat hoped the lifeguard would get there soon.
[participial phrase=flailing in the surf, subject=Pat]
Fighting over restaurants again, Sue and Rambo wondered if they should just skip dinner.
[participial phrase=fighting over restaurants again, subject=Sue and Rambo
Rising on the horizon, the blazing sun signaled a brand new day.
[participial phrase=rising on the horizon, subject=the blazing sun. Extra credit if you noted that "blazing" is a participle.]
Not all participial phrases are at the beginning of sentences or are in the present tense. Underline the participial phrases in these examples.
The instructor, beating the students over the head with examples, hoped to make participial phrases easier to identify.
[beating the students over the head with examples]
Wounded by an arrow, Jim's horse drug him down the path.
[Wounded by an arrow]
Squiggly called to the peeves hiding in the trees.
[hiding in the trees]
Trimming and coloring Jill's green spiky hair, the stylist daydreamed about bonsai trees.
[Trimming and coloring Jill's green spiky hair]
* Some people call these participial clauses or participial units.