Grammar Pet Peeve of the Week: Dangling Participle

All Fenn's "100 lb. Girl Dangling"

It looks a neat trick. But in a sentence, it's not.

Uh oh! Your participle is dangling!  Isn’t that embarassing? It happens to a lot of us. In fact, I’ve noticed this mistake frequently enough that I thought it merited a little post. Grammar girl will give you a complete explanation of  the errant modifier and its ramifications. Essentially it’s when you modify a subject that’s not really in the sentence, usually with a phrase beginning with a gerund.  For example:

Picking my nose, Jeanie looked disgusted.

This sentence suggests that Jeannie is doing the picking, but she is not really the intended subject. The subject is an assumed ‘I.’ But we know what happens when we assume. Better make it more up front.  Let’s try this:

Picking my nose, I noticed Jeanie looking disgusted.

It’s uncomfortable to even write the bad example because it seems like I’m just sticking together two nonsequiturs. But it also just feels unnatural to begin a sentence with a this kind of modifier. I know there are places where it comes in handy for the sake of varying sentence structure, but burying the subject of a sentence in the middle is strange. You’re describing someone or something before you know what it is. Here’s an alternative that I think is better.

Jeanie looked disgusted. I removed my finger from my nose.

You can get away with having that participle at the beginning once in a while. But once you do it more than twice, it really starts to stand out. Often, if you are looking for variation in sentence structure, the ideal choice may be the one that comes after several tries. We get so caught up in the broader view of our stories, that sometimes we neglect things at the sentence level. This is what revision is for. Take your time with it. Simply changing the order of the clauses is the quick fix. But the quick fix is not always the best.

What do you do when you find that your sentences are starting to sound too similar? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Ha. I loved the examples. And I see this all the time. With crits I’m doing and even *gasp* in my own writing. Thanks for the (timely) reminder. :-)

  2. Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    It’s surprisingly common. And all kinds of things pop up in our writing, seemingly unbidden. That’s what revision is for. Thanks for the comment, Robyn.

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