A Word, Please:

One day last week, I came home from my freelance copy-editing job, kicked up my feet and turned on an old episode of “The Office.” In it, receptionist Pam accidentally walked into her boss Michael’s office while he was changing clothes. The outcome wasn’t pretty.

“I saw his dangling participle,” she reported.

One of the things I like about “The Office” is that, like all good art, it reflects life. But, like all good TV, it’s more interesting than life. Or at least it’s more interesting than my life, as was all too clear that day.

Just hours before, I, too, had my senses assaulted by a dangling participle. But unlike the beige blur that traumatized Pam, the participle that was dangled in front of me wasn’t an extraordinary sight. On the contrary, it’s the type of thing I see all too often.

It looked something like this: “Surrounded by lush mountains and vineyards, winter is a perfect time to visit the valley.”

You might not see the problem in this sentence right away, but that just goes to show you how wily danglers can be. You have to read the sentence carefully to notice its logical flaw: Winter isn’t surrounded by lush mountains and vineyards. The valley is.

A dangling participle is just a scary-sounding name for a simple logic problem. Participles are words that usually end in “ing” or “ed” and usually form part of a longer verb phrase. For example, in “Pam was crying at her desk,” the word “crying” works with “was” to tell us when she was crying and that it went on for a while. In “Michael had warned Pam not to enter without knocking,” the past participle “warned” works with “had” to let us know that it happened at a certain point in the past.

Often in English, we will put one of these participles at the beginning of a sentence without any auxiliary verb. “Warned about the dangers, Pam steered clear.” “Crying, Pam sat at her desk.”

That’s not a problem. The reader gets it. He understands who was crying and who had been warned. But that’s only because when we write a sentence like this, we are accommodating the reader’s expectations. The reader expects that, when we begin a sentence with a word like “warned” or “crying,” we will promptly identify who was warned or who was crying.

And, in both the examples above, we did. We mentioned Pam quickly in a way that clearly attaches her to the participle. But what if we wrote something like, “Crying, her boyfriend, Jim, consoled Pam” or “Warned about the dangers, Michael’s office was a place Pam hesitated to enter”?

In both of these sentences, the person to whom the participle applies isn’t identified where the reader expects her to be identified: right after the comma. Instead, the stuff that follows each comma creates a chance for confusion or nonsense.

Her boyfriend, Jim, was not crying. Michael’s office was not warned about the dangers. Yet this is exactly the nonsense we imply when we don’t immediately attach a subject to a participle.

And participles aren’t the only things that can dangle. Any phrase that is truncated to omit a noun or verb can dangle.

“A great activity for the family, the rain at Disneyland didn’t ruin the trip.” Here there’s no participle in the beginning. Yet because the opening phrase doesn’t contain its own subject, we hint to the reader that we’ll make clear as soon as possible what, exactly, is a great activity for the family. Then we let the reader down by making the first noun after the comma “rain” instead of Disneyland.

Get in touch 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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