Thursday, September 27, 2012

What is a "dangling participle?"

The first in a popular series of mystery books about 
a prostitute-turned-band singer, and a musician-cop.
Together they come up against murder again, and again
-- without a dangling participle in sight.

Question: Someone told me I had a "dangling participle." I just said, "Thank you." But I have no idea what they meant....

Answer: Dangling participles are when a phrase is out of place in the sentence structure and the placement of the participle leaves it modifying the wrong verb, so that it  alters the meaning of the sentence from the author's original intention.

I can dangle a participle with the best of them and once had "a woman in a barn with a broken hip." This says the BARN had a broken hip -- must've been the roof.... Well, anyway, watch out for phrases like that. They tend to send editors off into gales of laughter.

What I meant, of course, was that the woman with a broken hip was in the barn, but that's not what I said. This happens to ALL of us from time to time, because we are so involved with what is happening in the story we are telling that we forget to pay attention to the words.  The trick is to recognize it when we give our work a final edit.

I use a method I call "layering."  That is, I write in layers, concentrating on one thing at a time – all my poor brain can manage --and going through the material several times with a single objective in mind. I hear my characters, rather than “see” them , so first, I go back and layer in every image I can think of to make sure my readers can see everything. I'm only working on images at this point. Show, show, show, show, show! 

Then I go back again and rewrite the transitions, making sure the who? when? and where? is present at the opening of every scene and that the viewpoint character is mentioned First. 

Also I look at continuity, checking to make sure they walk outside before noticing it has started to rain, etc. 

Then I look for end-of-scene hooks to make sure a reader wants to find out something that will happen later.

BUT IN THE BACK OF MY MIND, in all those passes, I try to keep a vigilant watch for those dangling participles. Because they will happen to the best of us.

Here's a few examples, though I'm not guilty of ALL of them:

Riding along on my bicycle, the dog knocked me over. (A bicycle-riding dog???)

Rushing to finish the paper, Bob's printer broke. (Nice when the machinery cares about your deadline!)

Running to the catch the bus, Bob's wallet fell out of his pocket. (Tell that wallet to walk next time!)

Having finished my dinner, the waitress offered to bring out the dessert tray. (I am not tipping a waitress who eats MY dinner!)

At age seven, her grandfather passed away. (Obviously, the grandfather did not pass away at age seven.)

Decked out in a stunning vintage Versace gown, the man couldn't take his eyes off his Academy Awards date.  (SOME guys will wear anything. )

Removing each other's fleas, the zoo workers watched the monkeys intently. (Flea-infested zoo-keepers? No big surprise.)

For sale: an antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.  (Seen a few ladies like that in my time.)

And from e-Bay:

Wanted: Man to take care of cow who does not smoke or drink. (Nice that the cow  doesn't run up expenses for alcohol and tobacco.)

For Sale: Several very old dresses from grandmother in beautiful condition. (Nice that granny is holding up so well.) 

Well, you get the idea!



  1. A favorite resource of mine, Bobbye Christmas, calls these "manuslips." They seem to read right while proofing but turn hilarious out of context. I always seem to create my own when inserting extra sentences and descriptions.

  2. I think Groucho dangled one when he said: "This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas."