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Grammar and the Dangling Participle

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The Dangling Participle: What’s that again?

Pop quiz: What’s wrong with the following sentences?

- After picking up all the toys, the toy chest was overflowing.
- Watching through the window, the car pulled out of the driveway.
- Featuring all the latest bells and whistles, we recommend you buy this new phone.

Answer: Dangling participles! (You probably guessed that from the title, right?)

So what is a dangling participle? It’s when your participial phrase that’s beginning your sentence (“After picking up all the toys,” “Watching through the window,” and “Featuring all the latest bells and whistles”) doesn’t actually modify, or go with, what comes next (“the toy chest was overflowing,” “the car pulled out of the driveway,” and “we recommend you buy this new phone”)

Because the two parts are next to each other in the sentence, separated by a comma, you mentally expect them to go together. And since your reader expects them to go together, you need to make them go together! If the first part of your sentence doesn’t go with the rest, it’s just left hanging there: dangling.

Fortunately, this is easy to fix. As you edit your writing, make sure that beginning participial phrase matches up with the subject of your sentence. Let’s look at our examples from above:

EXAMPLE: After picking up all the toys, the toy chest was overflowing.

The subject of the sentence is “the toy chest.” Unless this is a magical toy chest, it can’t actually pick up toys (though wouldn’t that be great?), so the participial phrase and the subject aren’t matching up.

CORRECTED EXAMPLE: After picking up all the toys, we were exhausted.

Now the subject of the sentence is “we,” and “we” can definitely pick up toys.

EXAMPLE: Watching through the window, the car pulled out of the driveway.

The subject of this sentence is “the car.” Cars don’t tend to watch through the window.

CORRECTED EXAMPLE: Watching through the window, Amy saw the car pull out of the driveway.

Now the subject is “Amy,” and “Amy” can watch though the window.

EXAMPLE: Featuring all the latest bells and whistles, we recommend you buy this new phone.

This time, the subject is “we.” But the participial phrase is actually modifying the object of the sentence “this new phone.”

CORRECTED EXAMPLE: Featuring all the latest bells and whistles, this new phone is a great buy.

We’ve moved the object to become the subject, and now it’s the phone that has the latest bells and whistles, as it should be.

So remember to match up your participial phrases with your subjects and you can avoid any pesky dangling!

Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction. Rachel also works as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. Learn more at www.rachelmichaels.com.
  1. Thanks for the reminder. It is so easy to fall into this sort of trap when writing.

  2. Thanks, Shirley! Glad you found it helpful!

  3. Definitely a good reminder, and an easy way to explain it. I am going to share your link in my page. Thank you.

  4. After reading your article, my writing is more grammatically correct.

  5. Good explanation, Rachel. By the way, as a grammar expert, you might want to correct an error in your bio. You say “trying to wean herself off of them.” Things are never “off of.” The correct phrasing is “trying to wean herself off them.” :)

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