Monday, April 12, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: Cut the Dangling Participles!

Participial phrases often add excellent descriptions to sentences, but writers should be careful to make sure the intended meaning is clear. Dangling participles loom in the margins of sentences and twist the writer’s words. While these dangling phrases are incorrect, they can be found in the copy of careful writers. When you come across participial phrases in your work, make sure that phrase connects to the intended subject.

But let’s review our terms before moving toward certain grammatical edicts.

The Chicago Manual of Style never hesitates to offer precise definitions. The fifteenth edition notes, “A participial phrase is made up of a participle plus and closely associated word or words, such as modifiers or complements.” It’s easy to spot the participle. You have to look for a modified verb stem, usually ending in ing for present participles or ed for past participles. Participial phrases come in two forms: they can function as an adjective to modify a noun or pronoun, and they can function as an adverb to modify the predicate or part of the predicate. Participial phrases modifying the subject of the sentence are the most problematic for writers, so we will focus on these phrases. Here are some examples of participial phrases to show how they work in sentences:

Snuggling into my blankets, my cat purred in the dark.
Running from the cops, the robber tripped over the curb and dropped the stolen money.

In the first example, Snuggling is the participle for the phrase into my blankets. The participial phrase Snuggling into my blankets modifies the subject cat, showing what she was doing as she purred in the dark. The second example modifies robber through the participial phrase Running from the cops. Participial phrases tend to be at the beginning of a sentence; they are usually very close to the subject being modified.

The participial phrases begin to dangle as they become disconnected from the proper subject. When the independent clause following the participial phrase does not begin with the subject modified by the participial phrase, the reader can quickly become confused. For example:

While pumping my gas, my car began to roll backward.

It seems that the car is both beginning to roll and pumping my gas. Rephrasing the uncanny ability of my car to pump my gas, I have two easy alternatives that offer more clarity. I can use the correct subject in the participial phrase, or I can begin the independent clause with the correct subject. Here are the two corrected versions of this sentence:

While I was pumping my gas, my car began to roll backward.
While pumping my gas, I noticed my car was rolling backward.

These introductory phrases clearly express that I—and not a futuristic car—was pumping the gas. We have cut the dangling participles!

There are two types of sentences prone to creating dangling participles. When using participial phrases, you should not start the independent clause with there is, there are, or it is. The Copywriter’s Handbook also notes, “Dangling is also inevitable when the independent clause is headed by a verb.” Here are a few examples of these dangling participles:

Reading the reports from the front line, it is unsafe for our army to advance any more.
Awakened by the thunderstorm, there is no chance of me going back to bed.

Watching the sunrise, getting up early was her greatest pleasure.
While eating the chocolate bar, trying to drive was very difficult for Paul.

These phrases can be corrected as easily as our first examples. We can either insert the correct subject in the first clause, or we can begin the independent clause with the proper subject. Here are two corrected versions of these examples:

After I was awakened by the thunderstorm, there is no chance of me going back to bed.
While eating the chocolate bar, Paul found driving to be very difficult.

Always pay attention to the participial phrases in your writing. Although the concept may make sense in your head, you should be sure that your sentences clearly communicate your thoughts.

No comments:

Post a Comment