Getting modifiers close to words they modify

D

angling participle.

Now that I have your attention, I'd like to talk about dangling participles.

This most famous of danglers is must-know stuff for any self-respecting smarty-pants. Not because the concept will help your writing all that much. Many people write just fine without the first clue what the term means.

Instead, the value of learning about the dreaded "dangling participle" is that you to get use the term "dangling participle," which in my experience is one of the best ways to win an argument, clear a room or intimidate just about anyone.

And with the holidays just around the corner and your talk-radio-addicted uncle gearing up for the annual drunken holiday debate, there's never been a better time to learn how to drop the conversation-stopping term "dangling participle."

Look at the following sentence: "Sleeping fitfully, his sheets became drenched with sweat."

Can you see what's wrong with that? Sheets don't sleep. That's why this sentence is a classic example of a dangling participle.

A dangling participle is just one type of dangling modifier or, more simply, dangler. A dangler is a modifying phrase that doesn't attach well to the noun it's supposed to modify and, as a result, modifies the wrong word, creating nonsensical ideas such as sheets that sleep.

Logically, a modifying phrase like "sleeping fitfully" should be placed as close as possible to the noun or pronoun it modifies, which usually means the noun or pronoun comes right after it. So in the correctly written sentence "Sleeping fitfully, he perspired so much that his sheets became drenched in sweat," you see that the modifying phrase "sleeping fitfully" is followed immediately by the person who was sleeping, "he."

That's how sentences are supposed to work. It has to do with reader expectations. Readers naturally assume that the noun closest to a modifier is its partner, regardless of whether that modifier is an adjective or a whole phrase or clause.

The "participle" part of the term dangling participle means the modifying phrase is built on either an "ing" form of a verb or on a past-tense form.

Sleeping, walking, having, being and running are examples of "ing" participles. Startled, stuffed, baffled, exhausted, risen and humiliated are just a few examples of past participles that can also function as modifiers. These words stem from verbs. But when they describe nouns, they're categorized as adjectives — or, more precisely, participial modifiers.

So when one of these "ing" or "ed" forms dangles — that is, when it's not close enough to the word it modifies — it's a dangling participle.

Participles aren't the only things that can dangle. Any modifying phrase can. Look at this sentence: "As parents of the winner, this trophy means a great deal to us." This sentence inadvertently suggests the trophy is the winner's parents.

Sometimes whole clauses can dangle, too, as we see in the sentence: "Jones returned to direct the play last summer, which drew rave reviews." Here, the relative clause that begins with "which" is separated from the noun it modifies — "play" — by the phrase "last summer."

There are two easy ways to fix danglers. The first, which works only part of the time, is to move sentence elements around until the modifying phrase or clause is right next to the word it modifies: "Jones returned last summer to direct the play, which drew rave reviews."

When that doesn't work, the easiest option is to turn a modifying phrase into a complete clause. "As John slept fitfully, his sheets became drenched with sweat."

Dealing with danglers is that easy. But lucky for you, your uncle probably doesn't know that.

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