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What Is a Dangling Participle?

What is a dangling participle? Well, it might help if we first define what a participle is before we get to the mess we make when we hang them out to dry. So if you’re uncertain, first take a peek at our article What is a Participle? If you are up to speed on participles – read on!

As you recall from prior grammar lessons, past and present participles come from verbs – but they are not verbs. They are used in sentences as modifiers.

Because participles are modifiers just like adjectives, they can’t be lonely! They must have a noun to modify. So the basic idea of a dangling participle is one that is left there hanging out in the cold, with no noun to modify.

Don’t Leave Your Participles Out in the Cold: Examples

Example 1

    While hiking, the birds were chirping loudly and beautifully.

Hmmm. Who is hiking here? We have no idea. The only noun in the entire sentence is birds, and we can be pretty sure that the birds were not hiking! So the participle hiking is in need of a noun to modify!

    The hiking campers listened to the birds chirping loudly and beautifully.

Whew! Our present participle hiking now modifies the noun campers. This participle is not left dangling – and all’s right with the world.

Example 2

    Speeding down the hill, everyone clambered to get out of the way.

Who or what is speeding down the hill? How do we know? We don’t, and therein lies the problem. Our present participle – speeding – is dangling out in the cold with no noun to modify. So let’s give it one.

    The speeding skier flew down the hill as everyone clambered to get out of her way.

Which skier? The speeding skier.

Example 3
Let’s try one that’s a bit more tricky.

    Having missed the exam due to illness, an excuse was needed.

This one is a bit less obvious. And the more complex a sentence is, the more difficult it may be to determine if one of your participles is dangling. As previously stated, a participle needs a noun to modify, and that noun is almost always the subject noun of the sentence.

So what is the subject noun in Example 3? Yes – you got it. There isn’t one! Who did the action? We have no idea. So all we need to do to fix this dangling participle is add in the subject (i.e., who is doing the action).

    Having missed the exam due to illness, Julia needed to present an excuse to her teacher.

Now we know! It was Julia who missed the exam, and who now needed an excuse. Mystery solved.

So the bottom line is: participles are verb forms that act as an adjective in a sentence. As an adjective, it must have a noun to modify. If there is no noun, then it is dangling out in the wind! Your readers will be very confused – so don’t leave them dangling.

Hopefully we’ve helped you find the answer to the question “What is a dangling participle?” If you have more questions, let us know in the comments!

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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