September 14, 2011

Wednesday Words of “Whiz”dom # 3: The Case of the Dangling Participle

What’s wrong with these pictures?

  •  Moaning in the distance, Henry heard the foghorn.
  • Locked in the book cabinet, Mrs. Stevens found her keys.
  •  Sizzling and dripping with gravy, Mr. Jonas began to eat his steak.
  •  Screaming wildly, the court was stormed by the fans.
  •  Vacuuming the living room, the lost necklace was discovered under the couch.

You are probably saying to yourself, “These sentences don’t sound right, but I’m not sure why.”

Well, you’re right.  The sentences don’t sound right because they are grammatically incorrect – for a variety of reasons.  All of these sentences have what is known as “dangling participles” or “misplaced modifiers.”  The first three sentences are easy to correct.  The last two have some additional complications!

Here’s the rule:  Each of the participial phrases like “moaning in the distance,” “sizzling and dripping with gravy,” and “locked in her book cabinet” must describe (or modify) the noun closest to it in the sentence. 

In these sentences, therefore, Henry is moaning in the distance, Mr. Jonas is extremely messy, and poor Mrs. Stevens is locked in the cabinet. That’s pretty funny, but an admissions officer may not laugh – or even giggle – if you write sentences like these.

There are several ways to correct or edit these sentences.  The easiest way is to move the modifier so that it is closest to the word it is intended to describe. So we write:

  •  Henry heard the foghorn moaning in the distance.
  •  Mrs. Stevens found her keys locked in the book cabinet.

The best way to clean up Mr. Jonas would be to say:

  •  Mr. Jonas began to eat his steak, which was sizzling and dripping with gravy.

The basketball game is a bit more complicated because it also has the problem of “passive voice,” which we will discuss in a future blog.

  •  Screaming wildly, the fans stormed the court.

In the last sentence, who is doing the vacuuming?  The necklace or the couch?  Obviously, neither.  The person who is doing the vacuuming needs to be inserted into the sentence.

  •  Vacuuming the living room, Dahlia discovered the lost necklace under the couch.

Now test yourself:  How would you edit these sentences?

  •  Ripped to shreds, Jason had to throw out his jeans.
  •  Flying around the kitchen, Fred chased his parakeet.
  •  A bowling ball was used by John weighing twelve pounds.
  •  These footprints were made wearing high heels.

The answers will be in next Wednesday’s “Words of ‘Whiz’dom.”

Be sure to write right!

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