English English language Grammar Usage

The compleat dangler

Q: I searched your website for info on dangling participles, but nothing came up. Am I doing something wrong, or has no one yet asked about this?

A: Aside from a couple of passing mentions, we haven’t gone into this topic on our blog, so what better time?

Here’s what a dangling participle looks like: “Peeing nonchalantly on the rug, Paris scolded her Chihuahua.”

The participle here is the word “peeing” (note the “-ing”), which is part of the larger participial phrase “peeing nonchalantly on the rug.”

We call this a “dangling participle” because it’s not securely attached to what it’s supposed to modify—the incontinent Chihuahua. As the sentence is arranged, Paris is the culprit, not the dog.

Another “-ing” word that’s often left to dangle is the gerund, an “-ing” word that acts like a noun and that can be the object of a preposition. Here’s an example of a dangling gerund: “After peeing on the rug, Paris scolded her Chihuahua.”

In Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she uses that howler as an example of the kind of error that your grammar checker won’t catch.

We can usually fix this by properly attaching the modifying phrase: “After peeing on the rug, Paris’s Chihuahua got a scolding.” Better yet: “Paris scolded her Chihuahua for peeing on the rug.”

In a nutshell, a participle or gerund (or a participial or gerund phrase) will attach itself to the closest noun (or noun phrase). All you have to do to avoid a dangler—a modifier that’s badly attached—is place it closer to what it modifies.

To be fair, a reader or listener usually makes the mental adjustment and won’t misunderstand you. But if you don’t want to be inadvertently funny, it’s best to avoid danglers.

Some readers have very literal minds, so don’t make them smile unless you mean to!

Of course, not all danglers are as obvious as the ones about Paris and her dog.

Here’s a less noticeable one: “Walking to work, my hat blew off.” What’s wrong here is that as the sentence is worded, the hat was walking to work.

This is easily fixed: “As I was walking to work, my hat blew off.”  Or, “My hat blew off as I was walking to work.”

Dangling participles and gerunds aren’t the only kinds of danglers. A dangler, as Pat writes in Woe Is I, is simply any word or phrase that inadvertently describes the wrong thing.

Here, for instance, is a dangling prepositional phrase: “As a den mother, Ms. Basset’s station wagon was always full of Cub Scouts.”

The phrase “as a den mother” is attached not to Ms. Basset but to her car. The solution is to make the phrase modify her: “As a den mother, Ms. Basset always had her station wagon full of Cub Scouts.”

And here’s a dangling adjectival phrase: “Dumpy and overweight, the vet says our dog needs more exercise.”

The phrase “dumpy and overweight” should be pinned on the dog, not the vet: “Dumpy and overweight, our dog needs more exercise, according to the vet.”

A more graceful solution would be to rewrite the sentence: “The vet says our dog needs more exercise because she’s dumpy and overweight.”

A final word, from the “The Compleat Dangler” chapter in Woe Is I:

“Danglers show up in newspapers and bestsellers, on the network news and highway billboards, and they can be endlessly entertaining—as long as they’re perpetrated by someone else.”

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