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Rx from the Book Doctor: DON’T DANGLE YOUR PARTICIPLES IN PUBLIC!

April 18, 2014

By Bobbie Christmas

I hate to discuss grammar, but an understanding of grammar can turn weak writers into strong ones, so bear with me while I dip briefly into grammar. I promise I’ll quickly get back to careful, clear, creative writing, rather than grammar.

Since high school, we heard we should avoid dangling participles, dangling modifiers, and missing modifiers. As creative writers, we’re warned not to overuse gerunds and never to use them incorrectly. What are all those things, though, and why should we avoid them?

Here’s the good news: You don’t need to know a participle from a gerund. You merely need to use caution with words that end in –ing, for three reasons. First, words that end with -ing often lead to unclear or incorrect sentences. Next, -ing words often get overused and create repetition, and creative writers avoid unintentional repetition. The last reason to avoid –ing words is that active verb forms result in stronger writing. Can you avoid every –ing word? Of course not, but when an active verb can replace an –ing word, it is time to choose the active verb form instead, or at the very least, make sure the –ing word does not lead to confusion or repetition.

This week I edited a book by an obviously well educated person who knew how to set a scene, evoke emotions in the readers, describe feelings, and draw readers into the picture. Where the writer failed though, was in understanding how sentence structure can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. As a result, I was inspired to write about gerunds, participles, and missing modifiers today.

What on earth is a participle, anyway?

If you hate grammar as much as I do, you can zone out for a moment, while I speak of grammar. Watch out, though, because I will soon get back to the subject of creative writing.

Participles are words that have the characteristics of both verbs and adjectives. Merriam-Webster uses as an example the following: In the phrases “the finishing touches” and “the finished product,” “finishing” and “finished” are participles formed from the verb “finish.”

Here’s a participle at the opening of a sentence: “Sitting near the fire, Lisa felt her temperature rise.” That sentence is fine, and here’s why: Every sentence must have a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb). The subject (the thing that did the action) is “Lisa.” The predicate (verb) is “felt.” Here’s a participle that dangles: “Sitting by the fire, Lisa’s temperature rose.” Because of the sentence structure, “temperature” becomes the subject of the sentence and “rose” becomes the verb, but the participle, “sitting” now refers to Lisa’s temperature. The sentence therefore says that Lisa’s temperature was sitting by the fire. What? The author meant to say that Lisa was the one sitting by the fire, but because a possessive (Lisa’s) is an adjective, not a noun, it cannot be the subject of a sentence.

I’ll give more examples as I go along, many of which have been lifted out of manuscripts I’ve edited, manuscripts written by educated people, but people who did not recognize when their participles dangled.

A gerund? What’s that?

A gerund is a noun formed from a verb by the addition of -ing. An example of a gerund in use is as follows: “Painting relaxes me.” In the case of that sentence, “painting” is the subject of the sentence and is a verbal form used as a noun. Gerunds appear everywhere; there’s nothing wrong with them, except that too many –ing words can lead to repetition.

Dangling and missing modifiers? Huh?

A dangling modifiers an ambiguous sentence in which a modifying word could be misinterpreted as being associated with a word other than the one intended, or the intended modifier might be nonexistent. Ambiguity can lead to confusion and misunderstanding, and it sometimes leads to unintentional humor. We certainly don’t want our readers to laugh at our writing, do we?

Here’s a sentence with a missing modifier, and I lifted it from an obituary I recently read. “As a child in grammar school, his baby picture was voted Most Beautiful Baby.” What’s missing? The subject of the sentence, as it is written, is “picture,” so it appears that his picture won a prize for being a baby, but his picture was a photograph, not a baby. The writer meant to say something like this: “When Sam was a child in grammar school, his baby picture was voted Most Beautiful Baby.” With the revised, clear sentence, we know that Sam (the subject) was in school when his baby picture won an award.

How can missing or dangling modifiers make a reader chuckle? Here’s an example: “Standing barefoot on the cold, wet sand, my eyes follow the narrow channel out into the lake.” As written, the writer’s eyes stood barefoot on the sand and then followed a channel into a lake. Those eyes were very busy indeed! To correct the sentence, I would change it to one of the following: “Standing barefoot on the cold, wet sand, I let my gaze follow the narrow channel out into the lake” or “While I stand barefoot on the cold, wet sand, my gaze follows the narrow channel out into the lake.” The second revision is best, because it employs strong verbs (stand, follow), rather than the weak one (let) in the first revision. Hmm. I sneaked in a lesson about strong verbs, didn’t I?

Here’s a sentence for you to revise: “Slumping like a rag doll behind the wheel, her tears skidded down her cheeks unchecked.” Stop and think about it, revise and correct it mentally, and then read on.

Okay, you know her tears were not slumped like a rag doll, so how did you recast the sentence to fill in the missing modifier? You might have revised it this way: “She slumped like a rag doll behind the wheel, and her tears skidded down her cheeks unchecked.”

How would you fix the following sentences?

1. Looking up, the room had grown dark.

2. While carrying me around the room in front of other guests, her laughter covered my embarrassment.

3. Growing up, my father used to read to me.

You are now aware of the issue of dangling modifiers, so let me give you some instances of errors that made me chuckle, although the writers did not mean to make me laugh:

1. While traveling, my house was without power for two days. (I wonder where the house went when it was traveling.)

2. Rising back to a sitting position, her sodden hair began to drip. (I’m envious. My hair lies flat; it never sits.)

3. Drawing in a strangled gasp of air, his eyes suddenly opened. (I hope his eyes didn’t hyperventilate.)

4. After a few moments of continued walking, the wall of trees abruptly disappeared. (Those trees must have been tired from all that continued walking.)

What did you see that many of these erroneous sentences have in common? Did you spot it? Many begin with introductory phrases. How can you be sure your sentences are correct? Examine every introductory phrase in your writing and be sure that it does not displace the intended subject of the sentence. Easiest of all, watch every word that ends in –ing and be sure that those words are not overused and that they do not modify the wrong word or a missing word.

Best of all, find those –ing words and revise the sentence in a way that uses active verb forms, and your repetition will reduce while your sentences grow stronger.

Yours in writing,

Bobbie Christmas

b. christmas

About the Author: Bobbie Christmas, professional editor and award-winning writer, founded Zebra Communications in 1992 to help writers prepare books for publication. A lifetime member of FWA, she oversees the Editors Helping Writers service. Because she cures ailing manuscripts, people refer to her as a book doctor. Her website is www.zebraeditor.com, and her e-mail address is Bobbie@zebraeditor.com.

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2 Comments
  1. L. Dean Murphy permalink
    April 18, 2014 10:24 am

    Poor Lisa. She’s been dehumanized to adjective status. Book MD, you’ve become a fashion designer, by creating undergarments to support those dangling modifiers!

  2. April 18, 2014 3:51 pm

    Bobbie, I dangle participles frequently, and therefore find these tips helpful. I’m also guilty of missing modifiers. I just hope I’m not making those mistakes here.

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