Dangling participles and modifiers: what are they and how can you avoid them?

Posted on 22 April 2014 by Lucy Gregory

What is a participle and how does it dangle?

I could start out with a technical explanation, but it would be complicated and not very helpful. Instead, here are a few examples:

Running for her train, the wet platform caused Jane to slip.

Having been neglected in the basement for years, my secretary brought up the client’s documents.

Unpacking the shopping, my cat pawed at the tuna fish.

All these examples start with an action phrase written as an -ing word. This is a participle.

Another thing common to the three examples is that the words immediately after the comma don’t match the participle. It was Jane, not the wet platform, who ran for the train. It was the documents, not the secretary, that languished in the basement.

When the words immediately after the comma don’t match the -ing phrase before the comma, you have a dangling participle.

Have a go at spotting dangling participles is the sentences below.

1) An expert in finance, Kevin’s position at the company was secure.

2) As an editor, dangling participles are the most common error I see.

3) When handling complaints, you should always be polite.

4) On completing the transaction, the team enjoyed some well-deserved champagne.

5) Having elected a reform-oriented government, India’s parliament is now led by Narendra Modi with a majority.

6) On completing the transaction, champagne was served.

7) Talking to the chairman, John’s nervousness was clear.

8) Talking to the chairman, John was clearly nervous.

9) Talking to the chairman, it was clear that John was nervous.

10) Providing the perfect environment, sea horses are at home in the crystal waters of a Caribbean Sea.


Click here for the answers.
 

Dangling modifiers

Most dangling happens to participles. But it can also occur in sentences that don’t start with-ing words. This is known as a dangling modifier.

As a former member of staff, the marketing team are delighted to invite you to the company’s annual reunion.

Sloppy and unprofessional, the board of directors agreed to fire Lizzie.

(The invitee, not the marketing team, is a former member of staff, and we assume it’s Lizzie, not the board, who’s sloppy and unprofessional.)
 

How to avoid dangling participles and modifiers

Spotting a dangling participle or modifier is the hard bit. Once you’ve done that, it’s easy to fix. Let’s take two examples from earlier:

As a former member of staff, the marketing team are delighted to invite you to the company’s annual reunion.

Unpacking the shopping, my cat pawed at the tuna fish.

You can insert the right words after the comma:

Unpacking the shopping, I noticed my cat pawed at the tuna fish.

As a former member of staff, you are invited to the company’s annual reunion.

Or rewrite the sentence:

As I unpacked the shopping, my cat pawed at the tuna fish.

We are delighted to invite you to the company’s annual reunion.

(Presumably the invitee knows they used to work at the company so the original opening phrase is unnecessary.)