Lately, I’ve been on a grammar and style binge, discussing various aspects of writing that can be pitfalls for novelists, bloggers, and journalists alike. Today, I’m continuing the trend with a post dedicated to dangling modifers, and in particular, dangling participles.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, in a post about my biggest grammar pet peeves, that the reasons dangling modifiers are a problem is that when you use them, you’re not actually saying what you think you’re saying.
To make matters worse, since you know what you mean to say, dangling participles can be particularly hard to catch in your own writing. When you read through your draft, your mind will automatically associate the offending gerund phrase with what you mean it to be describing, and not with the subject that, grammatically, it’s actually attached to.
What’s a gerund?
In case grammar jargon isn’t your thing, a gerund is a verb in “-ing” form. Walking, talking, reading, and writing are all gerunds. When we use a verb as the subject of a sentence in English, we can (and often) put that verb in gerund form.
- Walking is fun.
- Reading’s my favorite hobby.
- Singing is a blast. I wish I were a better singer.
We can also gerunds as the subject of phrases that, in turn, describe a noun.
- Walking to the store, he ran into his best friend.
- Reading an uninteresting book in the library, the bored student found class time passing slowly.
- Singing on the stage, she felt the adrenaline rushing through her.
When you have a gerund phrase, things become tricky. Especially when that phrase comes at the start of a sentence. You want to make sure it’s modifying the noun you mean it to modify.
Gerund Phrases Modify the Subject
I will never forget how much fun I had in seventh grade English class, learning about all the different kinds of phrases in the English language: how to identify them, and how to use them.
One of the most important things the teacher talked about was how a gerund phrase at the start of a sentence always modifies the subject of the sentence. Generally, this means the noun that immediately follows.
Thus, in the examples I gave above:
- “He” is “walking to the store.”
- “The bored student” is “reading an uninteresting book in the library.”
- “She” is “singing on the stage.”
Problems arise when the sentences are arranged differently. What if I just assumed a subject, without stating it?
- Stuck reading an uninteresting book in the library, class time passed slowly.
In that example, the gerund phrase, grammatically, is modifying “class time.” So, “Class time” is “stuck reading an uninteresting book in the library.” That’s not exactly what I meant to imply, though.
And that’s not the worst of it. Even when you do have the phrase’s intended noun in your sentence, you can slip up.
- Singing on the stage, adrenaline rushed through her body.
Is she singing, or is the adrenaline? The way that’s written, adrenaline is.
There are other ways to have dangling modifiers, but in my experience, those are easier to find and to fix because they sound a bit absurd. I mean:
- Open until ten o’clock, she ran to the store.
- The student, old and dusty, picked up the tome.
Who would write that? Maybe someone would in a really hurried fluster, trying to get a word count goal on the final day of National Novel Writing Month. During the first edit, though, the chances an author wouldn’t catch something so obvious are pretty slim.
For me, I’ve found gerund phrases at the start of sentences are my worst dangling modifier offenders. That’s why I focused on those today.
I hope you found this post helpful! I’ve actually had more fun throwing this post together than I can remember in a while writing a post.
Are dangling modifiers an issue for you as well? Do they drive you nuts? Do you remember any funny examples from English class? Do share!