Dangling Participle: Explanation and Examples

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

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A dangling participle is a modifier that doesn't seem to modify anything. It occurs when the word being modified is either left out of the sentence or isn't located near the modifier. Put another way, a dangling participle is a modifier in search of a word to modify.

For example, "If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost billions." The dangling participle, if found guilty, seems to imply that lawsuit itself will be found guilty. To fix this, simply add the missing pronoun or noun, such as "the company," "him," or them." A corrected sentence, then, might read, "If found guilty, the company could lose billions." This sentence makes it clear that the company may be found guilty and be forced to pay billions.

Key Takeaways: The Funny Dangling Participle

  • Dangling participles are modifiers in search of a word to modify. Dangling participles can be unintentionally funny because they make for awkward sentences.
  • The participle in subordinate clauses should always describe an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence.
  • An example of a dangling participle would be: "Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed." This makes it seem like the unfortunate deer was driving. Correct the sentence by including the missing proper noun. "Driving like a maniac, Joe hit a deer." The corrected sentence makes it clear that Joe was driving.

Participles in Subordinate Clauses

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

Participles are verb forms that act as adjectives. A participle phrase is a group of words—containing a participle—that modifies a sentence’s subject. Participial phrases are generally subordinate clauses; that is, they cannot stand alone. The participle in such phrases should always describe an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence. Here are examples of participle phrases in subordinate clauses used correctly, where the participle phrases are printed in italics:

  • After running the marathon, Joe felt exhausted.
  • Cleaning out the messy drawer, Sue felt a sense of satisfaction.
  • Walking the trail, the hikers saw many trees.

Each of these italicized participle phrases modifies the subject that comes directly after it—it's clear that Joe was running the marathon, Sue cleaned out the messy drawer, and the hikers were walking the trail. These particle phrases are used correctly because they are all placed directly adjacent to the nouns that they modify.

Dangling Participle Examples

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. Participles are modifiers just like adjectives, so they must have a noun to modify. A dangling participle is one that is left hanging out in the cold, with no noun to modify. For example:

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

In this 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. To correct the problem and give the dangling modifier a noun to modify, the writer might revise the sentence as follows:

  • 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.

In another example, consider the sentence, "After laying a large egg, the farmer presented his favorite chicken." In this sentence, the phrase "After laying a large egg" is placed next to the words "the farmer." This makes it appear to the reader as if the farmer is laying a large egg. A grammatically correct sentence might read: "After laying a large egg, the chicken was presented as the farmer's favorite." In the revised sentence, it's clear that the chicken is laying an egg, not the farmer.

Even the greatest literary figures fell prey to dangling modifiers. A line from Shakespeare's famous play "Hamlet" reads: "Sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me." You could correct the sentence by including the missing pronoun, which in this case would be "I," such as, "Sleeping in mine orchard, I was stung by the serpent."

There are also mundane, but unintentionally funny, examples dangling participles. Take the sentence: "Running after the school bus, the backpack bounced from side to side." In this example, the writer can insert the first, second, or third person into the sentence and place the participle phrase next to it.

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 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.

Funny Dangling Participle Examples

Avoid dangling participles because they can make your sentences awkward and give them unintended meanings. The Writing Center at the University of Madison gives several humorous examples:

  1. Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.
  2. Waiting for the Moonpie, the candy machine began to hum loudly.
  3. Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
  4. She handed out brownies to the children stored in plastic containers.
  5. I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.

In the first sentence, the dangling participle makes it seem like Marvin is the one "oozing across the floor." The second sentence seems to tell the reader that the candy machine, itself, is waiting for the Moonpie. In sentences 3-5: The bananas appear to be coming out of the market, the children appear to be "trapped" in the plastic containers, and the oysters are "coming down the stairs" for dinner.

Correct these sentences by including the missing proper noun or pronoun, or rearranging the sentence so that the participial phrase is next to the noun, proper noun, or pronoun it modifies:

  1. Marvin watched the salad dressing oozing slowly across the floor.
  2. Waiting for the Moonpie, I heard the candy machine began to hum loudly.
  3. Coming out of the market, I dropped the bananas on the pavement.
  4. She handed out brownies, stored in plastic containers, to the children.
  5. Coming down the stairs for dinner, I smelled the oysters.

Take care to avoid dangling modifiers or you run the risk of giving your readers an unintended reason to laugh at your work.