For years I've been telling people: Don't fear the word â€œparticiple.â€
The key to avoiding the frightening-sounding problem known as the â€œdangling participleâ€ is to not be frightened. It's a simple concept.
Just get past the scary word, I tell folks, and you're home free.
Today I'd like to change camps (to â€œpull an Arlen,â€ if you will). My new motto is this: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
My bleak new outlook on participles began recently when I stumbled across the term â€œparticiple clause.â€ It wasn't the â€œparticipleâ€ part that scared me. It was the â€œclauseâ€ part. You see, I'd always heard that units like â€œeating peachesâ€ in â€œI saw a man eating peachesâ€ were called participle phrases or participial phrases. Not clauses. But a quick Internet search revealed that lots of people â€” including university professors and those smart-sounding types who write Wikipedia entries â€” don't agree on whether to call these phrases or clauses.
A clause is defined as a unit that contains both a subject and verb â€” except when it doesn't. In â€œTracy wanted to ride her bike,â€ â€œTracy wantedâ€ is a clause. Subject and verb. Badda bing, badda boom.
But â€œto rideâ€ is also considered a clause. It's an infinitive clause. An infinitive clause qualifies as something called a â€œnon-finiteâ€ clause because the verb form doesn't show when the action took place. In â€œTracy wantedâ€ we know that her wanting was in the past because â€œwantedâ€ is a past tense form. But â€œto rideâ€ doesn't have a tense or a subject. Yet it's a non-finite clause.
So you can see how a clause contains a subject and a verb â€” except when it doesn't.
In â€œI saw a man eating peaches,â€ â€œI sawâ€ is a whole clause. But, like â€œsaw,â€ â€œeatingâ€ also conveys action. In that way, it's like the clause â€œto rideâ€ above. Plus, we know who's doing the eating: The man. So this â€œeatingâ€ is a clause, right?
Not so fast.
You see, participles like â€œeatingâ€ can also be modifiers. Adjectives, if you will.
A quick refresher on participles: they're most commonly â€œedâ€ or â€œingâ€ forms that are used with forms of â€œto haveâ€ or â€œto beâ€ to show when something happened or that it was ongoing. â€œLou has painted the house.â€
â€œPaintedâ€ is a past participle. â€œMr. Ed is talking.â€ â€œTalkingâ€ is a present participle, also called a progressive participle.
But these can also be adjectives: â€œLou saw the painted house.â€ â€œMr. Ed was a talking horse.â€
In a sentence, an adjective can qualify as an adjective phrase. In grammar, phrases â€” namely adjective, noun, verb, adverb and prepositional phrases â€” do not contain both a subject and a verb. They're smaller than that. A phrase works as either the noun or the verb, or one of those three other things.
So if â€œtalkingâ€ is basically an adjective phrase in â€œMr. Ed was a talking horse,â€ how do we understand â€œtalkingâ€ in, â€œI saw the horse talking to a cowâ€? Is it a phrase or a clause?
I contacted Geoffrey Pullum, linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh, to ask.
He explained that there is no right answer. Such a unit can be a phrase or a clause depending on your interpretation.
â€œNot much hangs on it. You're not making any mistake by calling [it] a participial phrase,â€ Pullum wrote to me, noting that this is true even though the â€œThe Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,â€ which he co-authored, calls these units clauses.
Regardless, â€œWalking down the beach, my shoulders got sunburnedâ€ contains a dangling participle.
It's dangling because the participle â€œwalkingâ€ seems to connect to â€œmy shouldersâ€ even though shoulders can't walk.
So go ahead and fear participles, if you like. It doesn't mean you have to dangle them.
?JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of â€œMortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs â€” Even If You're Right.â€ She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.