In today’s Everyday Grammar, we will explore a common issue in grammar classes: dangling participles. These structures can reduce clarity in communication.
You will learn about how to identify and correct dangling participles.
Let’s start with a few important terms and ideas.
What is a participle?
Imagine you walk into a small shop that sells sodas or sweet drinks. You see it has Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, among others. The drinks contain many of the same things — carbonated water, sugar, or high fructose corn syrup — but they also have different flavors and colors.
Participles are in some ways like soda.
But instead of carbonated water or sugar, participles have the verb as their raw ingredient. Because they come from verbs, participles are known as verbals.
Much like our sodas, participles come in a few different flavors: present and past. The present participle is the verb with an –ing ending. The past has a few special flavors of its own such as the –ed or –en ending, among others.
Participles are verbals, but they often act as adjectives. In other words, they give extra information about nouns or pronouns.
Consider this example:
The barking dog woke up the whole neighborhood.
Here, the participle “barking” acts like an adjective that describes the noun “dog.”
Sometimes participles come in phrases – groups of words that act together in a sentence.
One common way participial phrases appear is as an introduction to a sentence. Consider this example:
Barking loudly, the dog woke up the whole neighborhood.
In this case, the participial phrase is “barking loudly.” The subject of the participial phrase is also the subject of the sentence: the noun “dog.”
But what happens when the subject of the participle and the subject of the sentence are different?
Our earlier example would be something like this:
Barking loudly, the whole neighborhood woke up.
This example is known as a dangling participle. The subject of the participle “barking loudly” is missing. The subject of this sentence is “the whole neighborhood.” But it is not the whole neighborhood that is barking – such a situation would be truly bizarre!
So, a dangling participle is a kind of verb that does not have a stated subject. The dangling participle has lost its point of connection with the sentence.
Our dangling participle is in some ways like a rock climber.
Imagine a rock climber is going up a steep cliff. The rock climber needs points of connection – hands and feet – with the rock. If the rock climber loses these points of connection, he or she falls and hangs or dangles in space on a safety rope.
Such a situation is uncomfortable for the climber, and for people watching.
The same is true for a dangling participle. It has lost its points of connection with the sentence and is hanging in space. The reader or listener might not know what is being communicated.
But our rock climbing comparison can also present an answer. To succeed in the climb, the rock climber must stay close to the rock and keep points of connection.
Participial phrases – and other structures that act like adjectives -are generally clearest when they stay close to the noun they are describing. The greater the distance between the participial phrase and the noun, the greater the chance it will become a dangling participle.
Fixing common problems
Common sources of dangling participles include sentences with “there” or “it” in the subject position, as well as sentences that use the passive voice.
Having moved the bookshelves and bed, there was no room for the desk.
In such a case, one way to clarify the point is to expand the participial phrase into a full clause. The updated sentence could be something like this:
After we moved the bookshelves and bed, there was no room for the desk.
In today’s report, you learned about a few images that connect with participles, participial phrases, and dangling participles: a soda shop, a barking dog, and a rock climber. While all of these comparisons have their limitations, they can help you imagine situations and connect grammar to life. Such connections are important for helping you remember information.
But keep in mind, participles and participial phrases are a large subject. Today’s report offered a few thoughts. There is much more that could be said. We will explore more details about participles and participial phrases in future reports.
I’m John Russell.
John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
dangling participle – n. (grammar) a participle meant to modify a noun that is not actually present
verbal – n. (grammar) of, relating to, or formed from a verb
bizarre – adj. very unusual or strange
clause – n. (grammar) a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb