Saturday, February 5, 2011

The infamous dangling participle

A participle is a type of verbal phrase that acts like an adjective.

Verbal phrases include:

  1. Infinitives.
  2. Gerunds.
  3. Participles.
Defining participles
  1. They modify only nouns.
  2. They end in ing [present participle] or ed [past participle] (except for irregular verbs of course).
  3. Participles can move around a sentence (unusual for an adjective, and this makes them vulnerable to comical errors).
  4. Have very particular comma rules:
    1. Do not use commas if the participle narrows a general noun to someone or something more specific than the noun itself reveals (just like a relative clause).
    2. The presence of a comma indicates the participle modifies the subject (regardless of the subject's position in the sentence).
    3. Use commas if the participle comments on (or describes) a noun (just like a relative clause).
Incorrect: Feeling ill, the doctor is whom John needed.
Incorrect: The doctor had seen John, feeling ill
The magic comma (,) indicates the phrase modifies the subject regardless of its position. In both sentences, the subject is doctorIn both sentences, grammatically speaking, it sounds like the doctor needs a doctor. And based on the diagram below, it looks that way too.
Correct: Feeling ill, John needed a doctor.
Also correct: John, feeling ill, needed a doctor.
Also correct: John had seen a doctor, feeling ill.  
 (Remember, the comma indicates the participial phrase modifies the subject regardless of its position. In this case, the subject is John.)

Participles with a helping verb
Having stood for hours, John finally sat down.
Pre-noun participles
  • Pre-noun participles are a single participle that modifies the noun immediately following it.
Bill had a broken leg.

The safest place to put participles
The best place to put a participle is at the beginning of a sentence, followed by a comma, followed immediately by the noun it modifies. This technique guarantees writers they will not make any embarrassing mistakes with participles. For example:

Correct (best technique): Riding a bike, John delivered newspapers.
Correct (but not fool proof): John delivered newspapers, riding a bike.
Incorrect (the infamous dangling participle): John delivered newspapers riding a bike. 
John has an enviable job! He delivers bike-riding newspapers!