© Damen, 2002

10. Dangling Participles.

Adjectives ending in -ing (and sometimes -ed) are called participles and must be used with care. Consider the following sentences:

The robber ran from the policeman, still holding the money in his hands.
After being whipped fiercely, the cook boiled the egg.
Flitting gaily from flower to flower, the football player watched the bee.

If you said the last sentence to the football player's face just the way it's phrased above, you could end up a bloody lump of pulp lying on the astroturf, because he might conclude you think he "flits gaily," a thing most people in his profession don't do, at least in public.

The grammatical problem here rests with the -ing and -ed words used in these sentences: "holding," "being whipped," and "flitting." They are all participles, a type of verbal form that modifies nouns. The antecedent—that is, the noun to which the participle refers—must be clear to the readers in order for them to understand what's being said. Otherwise, an action may be subscribed to the wrong player, such as "flitting" to athletes. That's called a "dangling participle," because it's left "dangling" without a clear antecedent.

Just as with compound subject-verb agreement when "or" links two or more subjects (see above, #9), proximity shows the link between a participle and its antecedent in English. In other words, the participle goes with the noun closest to it, either directly preceding or following it and the words which go with it in the sentence. In the example above, "flitting" is clearly intended to go with "bee"—bees, after all, naturally flit—but because the closest noun to "flitting" is "the football player," the sentence seems to suggest that the athlete is doing the flitting, not the bee. The sentence should read "The football player watched the bee flitting gaily from flower to flower." Can you see how to correct the problems with the dangling participles in the other two examples?

In academic writing, dangling participles can cause serious misunderstandings, which is why I dwell on them here. Consider the following sentence: "After winning the Peloponnesian war, Athens was ruled briefly by the Spartans." By juxtaposing "winning" and "Athens," the sentence implies that Athens won the Peloponnesian War, which is wrong. The Spartans won the war. The sentence should be rephrased so that the participle is closer to the Spartans than to Athens: "After winning the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans ruled Athens briefly." Or, you can just rewrite the sentence and not use a participle: "After the Spartans won the Peloponnesian War, Athens was briefly in their control." Remember that precision is at a premium when writing history!"—or better, "when you're writing history."


NOTE on "considering" and "focusing."
Difficulties frequently arise from the misuse of two common participles, "considering" and "focusing," which often end up dangling. Consider this: "Considering the Assyrians' brutal policies toward foreigners, their catastrophic fall in 612 BCE comes as no surprise." What exactly is the writer of this sentence saying? "Considering" means literally "thinking about." So, who is doing the "thinking" in this sentence? Because "fall" is the noun nearest "considering," the sentence implies that the "fall" is doing the "thinking." But that makes no sense. "Falls" can't think; they just happen. Clearly the writer means to say that we (i.e. historians) are "considering." Thus, the statement needs to be rephrased: "Considering the Assyrians' brutal policies toward foreigners, we cannot be surprised by their catastrophic fall in 612 BCE." Now, we are "thinking," which is always good.

Another participle often entangled in similar trouble is "focusing." This example is taken directly from a student's paper I read: "While still focusing on the Greeks, the Persians were also a major civilization in antiquity." Do you see the problem here? As the Persians built their civilization, do you think they were "focusing" on Greece? That is, were they "looking at" the Greeks when they were building Persia. "Looking at" is, after all, what "focusing" literally means. So, can you correct this sentence in such a way that the participle isn't "dangling"?*


*Here's one way to repair the participle. Clearly the writer means we—that is, historians in general—are doing the "focusing," so "we" needs to be introduced into the sentence, just as was done before: "While still focusing on the Greeks, we must admit the Persians were also a major civilization in antiquity."

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