For years I've been telling people: Don't fear the word “participle.”

The key to avoiding the frightening-sounding problem known as the “dangling participle” 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 “pull an Arlen,” 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 “participle clause.” It wasn't the “participle” part that scared me. It was the “clause” part. You see, I'd always heard that units like “eating peaches” in “I saw a man eating peaches” were called participle phrases or participial phrases. Not clauses. But a quick Internet search revealed that lots of people — including university professors and those smart-sounding types who write Wikipedia entries — 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 — except when it doesn't. In “Tracy wanted to ride her bike,” “Tracy wanted” is a clause. Subject and verb. Badda bing, badda boom.

But “to ride” is also considered a clause. It's an infinitive clause. An infinitive clause qualifies as something called a “non-finite” clause because the verb form doesn't show when the action took place. In “Tracy wanted” we know that her wanting was in the past because “wanted” is a past tense form. But “to ride” 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 — except when it doesn't.

In “I saw a man eating peaches,” “I saw” is a whole clause. But, like “saw,” “eating” also conveys action. In that way, it's like the clause “to ride” above. Plus, we know who's doing the eating: The man. So this “eating” is a clause, right?

Not so fast.

You see, participles like “eating” can also be modifiers. Adjectives, if you will.

A quick refresher on participles: they're most commonly “ed” or “ing” forms that are used with forms of “to have” or “to be” to show when something happened or that it was ongoing. “Lou has painted the house.”

“Painted” is a past participle. “Mr. Ed is talking.” “Talking” is a present participle, also called a progressive participle.

But these can also be adjectives: “Lou saw the painted house.” “Mr. Ed was a talking horse.”

In a sentence, an adjective can qualify as an adjective phrase. In grammar, phrases — namely adjective, noun, verb, adverb and prepositional phrases — 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 “talking” is basically an adjective phrase in “Mr. Ed was a talking horse,” how do we understand “talking” in, “I saw the horse talking to a cow”? 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.

“Not much hangs on it. You're not making any mistake by calling [it] a participial phrase,” Pullum wrote to me, noting that this is true even though the “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” which he co-authored, calls these units clauses.

Regardless, “Walking down the beach, my shoulders got sunburned” contains a dangling participle.

It's dangling because the participle “walking” seems to connect to “my shoulders” 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 “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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