You might read the sentence underneath the cartoon on the left and not notice that anything is wrong with it. But read it again (or just look at the picture) and you see that it makes no sense — and is in fact ridiculous. We probably read, write, and speak such sentences frequently without even noticing what they really say! We call this particular error a dangling participle. They are best avoided! The way to avoid writing them is to be careful.
The caption under the cartoon means that time passed slowly for the person waiting for the bus. But is that what the sentence says as it is written? No. It says (and illustrates) that the time is waiting for the bus. Why does it say that? Well, in the English language, , words are assumed to go with other words or phrases that are near them. Since time is placed right after the participial phrase waiting for the bus, it is assumed that they go together and that waiting for the bus describes the word time.
Let’s start out by defining what a participle is. You know what a verb is. A verb is usually an action word of some kind, even if it isn’t a physical action (for example, think, wonder, assume, and determine are not physical actions, but they are verbs). A participle is one of the verbals — it used to be a verb, but it is now an adjective. An adjective is not an action word; an adjective describes a noun (person, place, thing, or idea) or a pronoun (I, me, you, they, he, etc.).
A participle comes in one of two types: present or past. So we need to take a verb and add something to it to make it an adjective. To make a present participle, we add -ing to the end of the verb. To make a past participle, we use the past tense form of the verb (often an -ed ending, but not always).
Here are some present participles in sentences:
1. The growling dog tried to bite the child. (The participle growling comes from the verb to growl, but is now an adjective describing dog. (Note that in the sentence The dog is growling at the child, growling is no longer a participle; is growling is now a verb.)
2. I saw a dancing elephant at the circus. (The participle dancing comes from the verb to dance, but is now an adjective describing elephant.)
Here are some past participles in sentences:
1. Skating on a frozen lake can be dangerous. (The past participle frozen comes from the verb to freeze in its present perfect form — the form you would use with “has” or “have” or “had.” It is now an adjective describing lake.)
2. The burned building was unrecognizable as the school that it once was. (The past participle burned comes from the verb to burn in its present perfect form — the form you would use with “has” or “have” or “had.” It is now an adjective describing building.)
It is when we use a participle in a phrase (a few related words strung together), usually to begin a sentence, that we run into trouble with dangling participles. (However, it doesn’t have to be a phrase, and it doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the sentence, as the examples below will show.) Since the participle or participial phrase is an adjective, it is thought to describe whatever noun or pronoun comes right after it. Therefore, you want to make sure that when you are writing, you place whatever that participle or participial phrase is describing, or modifying, directly after the phrase!
Here are some goofs!
1. Reading the newspaper by the window, my cat jumped into my lap. (Who was reading?)
2. Growling, I fed my hungry dog. (Who was growling?)
3. While still in diapers, my mother remarried. (Who was still in diapers?)
4. I saw the beautiful red tulips running down the street. (What was running down the street?)
5. Freshly painted and waxed, I picked my car up from the shop. (Who was freshly painted and waxed?)
There are usually several ways to correct a sentence. Here is one way to correct each of the above examples. In these “fixes,” the sentence was rewritten without participial phrases.
1. While I was reading the newspaper by the window, my cat jumped into my lap.
2. Because my dog was growling from hunger, I fed him.
3. My mother remarried while I was still in diapers.
4. I saw the beautiful red tulips as I was running down the street.
5. My car was freshly painted and waxed when I picked it up from the shop.
You could rewrite the sentences keeping the participial phrases, but the rewrite might be awkward or change the meaning of the sentences, so it isn’t necessary to keep the structure the same. Here are the “fixes” using the same participial phrases:
1. Reading the newspaper by the window, I was surprised when the cat jumped into my lap.
2. Growling, my hungry dog was finally fed.
3. While still in diapers, I saw my mother remarry.
4. Running down the street, I saw the beautilful red tulips.
5. Freshly painted and waxed, my car looked great when I picked it up from the shop.
It is easy to correct the mistakes once you notice that your participle or participial phrase is dangling and doesn’t make sense. One way to find these mistakes is to carefully proofread your writing!
There are other things in sentences that can also be misplaced. But that’s another blog post!
Til next time –
The Grammar Diva