It's My Participle, and I'll Dangle It if I Want To!
by Tina Blue
August 14, 2000
A participle is one of a class of verb forms known as "verbals." Verbals are derived from verbs, but because they are nonfinite* verb forms, they cannot serve as the predicate of a clause. The three types of verbals are infinitives, gerunds, and participles. Participles come in two tenses, present and past, and the present participle looks identical to the gerund. The only difference is the way they are used in the sentence. A gerund is the "ing" form of a verb used as a noun (Running is good exercise.), while the present participle is the "ing" form of a verb used as a modifier (Are those new running shoes?).
The participle of a verb is also the form that is the last word in a verb phrase. If you remember any of your grade school grammar, you may recall that a verb phrase consists of a main verb and its auxiliary (helping) verbs: "could have been"; "will be going"; "was breathing"; "had gotten." In each of these examples, the last word of the verb phrase is in the participial form. Both "been" and "gotten" are past participles, while "going" and "breathing" are present participles.
The reason why you want to avoid dangling a participle or a participial phrase is that, like all modifiers, participles are notoriously promiscuous. They don't care what you want them to modify--they will attach themselves to the nearest sentence element that they could grammatically modify, even if that turns your sentence into nonsense.
Here's an example: Walking along the beach, the sun rose majestically over the ocean. Now, that's a nice trick. This sentence has the sun walking along the beach!
Here's a corrected version: Walking along the beach, we saw the sun rise majestically over the ocean. Now the participial phrase modifies "we," as it should.
Here's another problematic participial phrase: Singing for all she was worth, we hoped desperately that Margaret would win the competition. In this sentence, "Singing for all she was worth" ends up modifying "we" rather than "Margaret," because "we" is closer to the modifier.
This participial phrase is not precisely dangling. A dangling participle doesn't have anything in the sentence to attach to, but "Singing for all she was worth" is actually a misplaced modifier that ends up attaching to the wrong word. The idea of dangling, however, seems to go with participles in the popular imagination, so I often just refer to misplaced or ambiguous participles and participial phrases as "dangling," so people can keep the information under a single category in their minds.
A corrected version of this example would read as follows: We hoped desperately that Margaret, singing for all she was worth, would win the competition.
Past participles are also capable of being dangled: Exhausted, starting the housework at such a late hour seemed ridiculous. There is nothing in this sentence for "exhausted" to modify. (By the way, "starting" is a gerund in this sentence, not a participle.)
Here is a correction: Exhausted, Elaine felt that starting the housework at such a late hour would be ridiculous. Now the participle "exhausted" modifies "Elaine."
As you can see, a dangling participle is one that either has no proper element in the sentence to modify (as when the observers were omitted from the sentence about the sunrise, and when Elaine was omitted from the final example), or else is not close enough to the word it is supposed to modify to prevent it from attaching to another element, as in the sentence about Margaret. In either case, the sentence is both ambiguous and nonsensical. Even if a sentence is not rendered nonsense by a dangling participle, it will still be ambiguous, and that is almost as bad.