The real problem with dangling participles

From The Economist

Reading this sentence, it may occur to you that something is slightly awry with it. Or you may not notice anything wrong at all. The first three words are a “dangling modifier”. This writing fault has been deprecated for over a century. It has made its way into countless usage guides, perhaps because of its catchy and evocative name, as something to be avoided at all costs.

The most common kind of dangling modifier is a dangling participle, as at the beginning of this column. Participles are those verb forms that end in -ing in the present tense, and usually in -ed in the past tense: playing, played. (Some past participles, like born and spoken, are irregular.) Participles are so named because they “participate” in two parts of speech. They are verbs in sentences like She has spoken French for three decades, but act like adjectives in those like French is the most spoken language in Belgium.

Participles can be used to add some contextual or explanatory information to a sentence: Speaking Spanish, he ordered three beers. Spoken in Paraguay, Guaraní is the source of the word “jaguar”. Since participles are a bit like a verb, readers seek an appropriate subject to go with them, typically in the first noun they find. The problem comes when these don’t match up. Writing gurus have often conjured up clumsy examples to highlight the issue: Trembling with fear, the clock struck twelveAfter fighting the flames for hours, the ship was finally abandoned. The clock was not trembling, nor did the ship fight the flames.

By no means do such abominations have to be invented. Take “Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow!” The quotation, from E.L. James’s “50 Shades of Grey”, has a classic dangling participle, the kind of thing that makes critics mock the style of her erotic novels. (A bit of envy may be mixed in with the condescension: “50 Shades” was the bestselling novel of the 2010s.)

Consider, though, that James Donaldson, who provides this example in his recent doctoral dissertation, also cites 21 dangling modifiers from a rather more critically admired source: Virginia Woolf. “Lunching with Lady Bruton, it came back to her.” “Rubbing the glass of the long looking-glass and leering sideways at her swinging figure a sound issued from her lips.” “Looking up into the sky there was nothing but blackness there too.”

The idea that an introductory phrase must always apply to the subject of the clause that follows is a useful rule, but not a cardinal one. Speakers often introduce a remark with some throat-clearing about their own feelings on the statement to come, as in “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It is but a short step to saying things like Frankly, he is lying to you—which under a strict rejection of “dangling modifiers” would be incoherent, as the speaker, not the liar, is being frank.

Yet these kinds of things crop up all the time, as when Richard Nixon said “Speaking as an old friend, there has been a disturbing tendency in statements emanating from Peking to question the good faith of President Reagan.” The dangling participle—“Speaking as an old friend”—has nothing to attach itself to. But Speaking as… is also a common introduction, the type that includes ConsideringAssumingLeaving aside and so forth. Only occasionally are these accompanied by an explicit I or we, which are nevertheless so strongly implied that they hardly need spelling out—a reason so many dangling modifiers go unnoticed. Moreover English sentences often have a dummy subject, such as “it” (Considering inflation, it seems plausible…) or “there are” (Given our situation, there are three options…). That makes dangling modifiers all the more likely to slip past editors.

It is best for writers to avoid, and those editors to fix, any danglers that give rise to absurdity, or even just a momentary jolt of confusion. Even if they bother only a few readers, those readers are disproportionately likely to think that the writer does not know how the parts of a sentence are meant to be combined. They are also disproportionately likely to write letters to the editor.

Link to the rest at The Economist

From ThoughtCo:

Dangling participles are modifiers in search of a word to modify. Dangling participles can be unintentionally funny because they make for awkward sentences.

The participle in subordinate clauses should always describe an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence.

An example of a dangling participle would be: “Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed.” This makes it seem like the unfortunate deer was driving. Correct the sentence by including the missing proper noun. “Driving like a maniac, Joe hit a deer.” The corrected sentence makes it clear that Joe was driving.

. . . .

Avoid dangling participles because they can make your sentences awkward and give them unintended meanings. The Writing Center at the University of Madison gives several humorous examples:

  1. Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.
  2. Waiting for the Moonpie, the candy machine began to hum loudly.
  3. Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
  4. She handed out brownies to the children stored in plastic containers.
  5. I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.

Link to the rest at ThoughtCo

11 thoughts on “The real problem with dangling participles”

  1. The problem is that the OP (and grammarians) puts the cart before the horse. Language is about interpretable communication, not about following (implicit) analytical rules for the formal written version of the language which is something of an artificial construct.

    Notice that some of the “sort of alright” examples are in direct speech (“Frankly, he’s lying.”), where the actual participle is simply a perfectly intelligible shorthand reference to the speaker. The “dummy subject” examples (“Speaking as an old friend”) are of a similar character, serving to emphasize the speaker’s claim to the reference, separately from the following statement. I maintain there is no confusion in those particular examples. I think of these as rhetorical examples of personal turns of speech which, as we all know, can often “violate” school-marm usage (up with which we should not put). Rhetoric often eschews the formal written version of the language for emphasis on living spoken versions for changes of register, personal styling, deliberate humor, shock, etc.

    Certainly the unintentionally humorous examples, while intelligible, are clumsy uses and should rightly be avoided. But therein lies the real issue — does the usage make the reader stop and reread the sentence? If the answer is “yes”, then the sentence is clumsy. If, on the other hand, the answer is “no”, then the usage becomes part of the style, no different in that way than choices of dialect or slang or sentence fragments.

    Living language usage and intelligibility come first. Restricting usage to the rules of the formal written language are more about conforming to status markers. If you’re writing non-fiction, your adherence to those rules gives you greater (subliminal) credibility. For fiction, not so much, if your ear is good. [And, yes, that last was an incomplete sentence (and this one started with a conjunction). Did this bother you?]

  2. How will computers be able to understand the text if we don’t apply the stringent syntax of a computer language?


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