A Word, Please: Undangle those participles

If you’re like most people, you probably dangle a bit from time to time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Even people familiar with the concept of dangling participles can let a dangler slip into the occasional email or memo. In fact, most of the professional writers I edit are vulnerable to one particular type of dangler — one so common and so subtle that, lately, I’ve been reconsidering whether it needs fixing at all.

Here’s an example: “A popular annual event, the Harvest Festival’s main stage will feature live musical acts.” Here’s another: “An ideal hiking spot, the canyon’s gorgeous scenery astounds visitors.”

To understand what, exactly, is dangling here, it’s worth pausing for a short refresher.

Danglers, which include dangling participles, are typified in sentences like “Walking down the beach, my shoulders got sunburned.” Clearly, the writer didn’t mean to suggest that his shoulders were walking. But the way he structured his sentence inadvertently said just exactly that.

The participial phrase “walking down the beach” is supposed to modify a noun — the person doing the walking. We would indicate this by placing the noun or pronoun being modified immediately after the modifying phrase: “Walking down the beach, I got a sunburn on my shoulders.” Because “I” comes right after the “walking” phrase, there’s no doubt it was the thing being modified.

But when you put something else after the modifying phrase, suddenly you’re saying something you never meant: “Walking down the beach, my shoulders…” doesn’t work because readers have come to expect that the thing being modified will come right after the comma.

Verb participles like “walking” aren’t the only things that can dangle. Even nouns and noun phrases can. “A man of great courage, Jane watched the soldier march by.” This sentence is structured in such a way as to suggest that Jane is the man of great courage, when in fact the writer (probably) meant the soldier.

But wait, you say. In our first two examples, the thing being modified did come right after the comma. The Harvest Festival comes right after the modifying phrase in “A popular annual event, the Harvest Festival’s main stage will feature live musical acts.” And the canyon is the very spot referred to by “An ideal hiking spot, the canyon’s gorgeous scenery astounds visitors.”

Or so it would seem. The truth is, putting “the Harvest Festival’s” after the modifying phrase isn’t the same as putting “the Harvest Festival” there. Ditto that for “the canyon’s,” which is quite different from “the canyon.”

In both these examples, the intended recipient of the modifier is taken out of noun form and made into a modifier itself. And because it’s a modifier, it points to another noun. “The Harvest Festival’s main stage” is a noun phrase whose head word is “stage,” not “festival.” “The canyon’s gorgeous scenery” is about the scenery, not the canyon. That’s why our two sentences both contain danglers.

To fix these, you usually have to recast your sentence. A popular annual event, the Harvest Festival features live musical acts on its main stage. The Harvest Festival is a popular annual event. Its main stage features live musical acts. A central part of this popular annual event, the Harvest Festival’s main stage will feature live musical acts.

But, of course, grammar rules exist for a reason. And that reason is always clarity. Were the original sentences so confusing that they needed to be changed? I asked a fellow copy editor on Twitter who said, sure enough, that she and her co-workers still change them.

So I guess I’ll keep changing them too.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.
 
 

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