You’ve heard of dangling participles, maybe even dangling gerunds, and you know they’re bad, but just what the hell are they?
Danglers, or misplaced modifiers, are what happen when a description wanders too far from its subject, leaving part of your sentence dangling like an errant booger and just as unsightly. Your readers may apply your description to the wrong word, or find themselves at a loss to know what you’re describing at all.
Consider the following sentence:
- Yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.
It may seem obvious it’s the werewolf, not the jogger, who’s yelping and whining, but according to the rules of grammar, the phrase yelping and whining (a participial phrase, if you’re curious) describes the closest subject, which is jogger. So your reader could be forgiven for assuming the jogger decided to get in touch with her inner canine. If that wasn’t the effect you were shooting for, you need to rearrange your sentence:
- Hearing yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.
The descriptive phrase (led by the participle hearing) now correctly applies to the closest subject (jogger). Alternatively, you could move werewolf closer to its description:
- Yelping and whining, the werewolf attracted the attention of an early-morning jogger, who rushed to its aid.
There are many ways to reattach a dangler to its subject; how you choose to do it is up to you.
- A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.
This is another example of a confusing subject: who is the consummate high-wire artist, the man or the woman? As the sentence is written, it’s the man. A little rearrangement makes the meaning clear:
- Knowing Nadia to be a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.
He’s the one who knows, so he is the closest subject following the phrase that starts with knowing (another participle, for those of you keeping track).
- Enjoying her new-found freedom, the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas was a short one.
The bus trip is apparently enjoying her freedom, until we rewrite the sentence:
- Enjoying her new-found freedom, she found the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas a short one.
Some misplaced modifiers can be subtle and hard to spot:
- Euphemia was not the only woman in the group of dandies wearing spats.
Are we talking about a group of spats-wearing dandies that includes more than one woman, or a group of dandies that contains more than one woman in spats? The participial phrase here is wearing spats, and it should be placed closest to the word it’s describing, woman or dandies:
- Euphemia was not the only woman wearing spats in the group of dandies.
- In the group of dandies wearing spats, Euphemia was not the only woman. (This is essentially the same as the original sentence, but less open to misinterpretation.)
Infinitive phrases, which start with the infinitive form of a verb (such as to tango, to simmer, to cogitate, etc.), are also at risk of dangling:
- To be first-class, you must have giant-squid-fighting extensions on your submarine.
It is your submarine, not you, that is striving to be first-class:
- To be first-class, your submarine must have giant-squid-fighting extensions.
- To throw a good birthday party, something must be encased in papier-mâché.
The implied subject of the phrase to throw a good birthday party is you; but then something muscles in and seems to want to take over the role of subject. A careful writer will avoid this confusion by making the real subject explicit:
- To throw a good birthday party, you must encase something in papier-mâché.
- A good birthday party must include something encased in papier-mâché. (Sometimes the best way to avoid a dangling infinitive is to scrap the infinitive phrase altogether.)
This is what a dangling gerund phrase looks like:
- Upon entering the crypt, my hair stood on end.
In this sentence, entering is a gerund. Like a participle, it ends in -ing, but unlike a participle, it functions as a noun, not a modifier. The gerund phrase entering the crypt is the object of the preposition upon, but where is its subject? As the sentence is written, the subject is my hair, which admittedly did enter the crypt, but presumably not under its own steam.
If that last paragraph left you clutching your own hair in confusion, don’t worry. All you need to know is this: upon entering the crypt describes the closest subject, which at the moment is my hair.
- Upon entering the crypt, I felt my hair stand on end.
- My hair stood on end the moment I entered the crypt. (Again, sometimes avoiding a potential dangler is the best solution.)
Some dangling gerunds look innocent enough to pass unnoticed:
- While donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.
Technically, though, we’re claiming his sense is donning a superhero mask. Better to make the subject explicit and avoid the sneers of the grammar cognoscenti:
- While donning his superhero mask, he was overcome by a sense of his own silliness.
Even without a gerund as its object, a preposition can still lead to dangling:
- With hats of such size, large birds sometimes tried to mate with the heads of fashionable ladies out for a stroll.
It was not, of course, the birds who sported the oversized headgear:
- With hats of such size, fashionable ladies out for a stroll sometimes found their heads under attack by large birds trying to mate.
The Inevitable Exceptions
Of course there are exceptions—this is English, after all. If you’re keeping an eye peeled for participles, be aware that -ing words acting as prepositions (a.k.a. participial prepositions) are dangle-proof. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- owing to
Phrases beginning with these words need a subject like a fish needs a bicycle.
- Barring unusual weather, the balloon should reach Abyssinia by Thursday.
- Concerning his wayward daughter, who had run off with a fallen seraph, he would only put a hand over his eyes and mutter about feathers.
- Given his aversion to emotional displays, the effusiveness with which the general greeted his poodle’s return was surprising.
- Regarding the proposed orgy, it was generally felt that dim lighting would be best for all concerned.
Whether or not you know a participle from your elbow, or a gerund from a hole in the ground, you can avoid danglers of all stripes by making sure your subject is always clear. In short, your readers should know what you’re talking about. It’s not too much for them to ask.