What Is a Dangling Participle? Explanation and Examples

Learn to avoid this grammatical faux pas and how to correct it

SAT Essay Writing
Writing a SAT Essay. Blend Images/Getty Images

If grammar awards were celebrated in a TV show, dangling participles would win the "funniest name" prize. Everybody knows about dangling participles because of their funny-sounding name, but many people don't really understand why they are considered a grammatical faux pas.

Participles and Participle Phrases

Before discussing dangling modifiers, it's important to first understand what are participles and participle phrases. Participles are verbs that describe a continuous action, such as dreaming, eating, walking, frying, and typing, explains Captsone Editing.

Participles are verb forms that act as adjectives. The academic editing company further explains: "A participle phrase is a group of words — containing a participle — that modifies a sentence’s subject." Capstone gives these examples of participle phrases used correctly, where the participle phrases are printed in italics:

  • After massaging her temples, Sarah felt relief from her headache.
  • Washing the dishes, Albert felt a sense of satisfaction.
  • Lying on the deck, the children gazed at the stars.

Each of these italicized participle phrases modifies the subject that comes directly after them — it's clear that Sarah is massaging her temples, Albert is washing the dishes, and the children are lying on the deck. These particle phrases are used correctly because they are all placed directly adjacent the nouns that they modify.

Dangling Participles

By contrast, dangling participles are participles or participle phrases that are not placed next to the nouns they modify, causing great confusion, and not a small number of unintentionally humorous grammatical errors. As Dawne Ducarpe notes in her March 6, 2018, article, "What is a Dangling Participle," published on the website, Magoosh:

"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."

A few examples, then, of dangling modifiers are:

  • Looking around the yard, dandelions sprouted in every corner.
  • Eating like a hungry hippo, the pancakes disappeared from my plate within seconds.
  • Running after the school bus, the backpack bounced from side to side.

In the first sentence, the phrase "Looking around the yard" is placed just before the noun (and subject of the sentence) "dandelions." This makes it seem as if the dandelions are looking around the yard (an act that would be pretty difficult for dandelions to do, since they don't have eyes).

In the second sentence, the phrase "Eating like a hungry hippo" is placed next to the word "pancakes." This makes it appear to the reader as if the pancakes are feasting on themselves, an image that is either grossly cannibalistic or humorous, depending on your point of view. In the third sentence, the reader is left to imagine that the "backpack" is "running after the school bus."

Eliminating Dangling Modifiers

Fixing, or eliminating, dangling modifiers is a task that requires the writer to place the participle or participle phrase next to the noun it modifies. Sometimes the writer has inadvertently left those nouns out of the sentence because they are implied. In these cases, the writer needs to insert the implied noun into the sentence.

Using the previous examples, the writer can insert the first, second, or third person into the sentence and place the participle phrase next to it. Instead of the first sentence, which reads:

  • Looking around the yard, dandelions sprouted in every corner.

The writer might revise the sentence as:

  • Looking around the yard, I could see that dandelions sprouted in every corner.

Since dandelions can't see, the sentence now makes it clear that it is "I" who is looking around the yard at the sprouting sea of dandelions.

The writer might revise the second sentence, which contained a dangling modifier:

  • Eating like a hungry hippo, the pancakes disappeared from my plate within seconds.

to read:

  • Eating like a hungry hippo, he made the pancakes disappear.

Since pancakes can't eat themselves, the sentence now makes it clear that the third person — "he" — is eating the pancakes. And in the third sentence, which originally read:

  • Running after the school bus, the backpack bounced from side to side.

A revised sentence that eliminates the dangling modifier might read:

  • Running after the school bus, the girl felt her backpack bounce.

This revision makes it clear that the "girl" is running after the bus, even as she feels her backpack bounce. This also eliminates that pesky dangling modifier, which initially left the reader with a humorous mental picture of a backpack sprouting legs and dashing after a school bus.