Monday, May 25, 2015

Don't Dangle (Your Participles)

‘Walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’

Some of you will read that sentence and realise immediately what is wrong with it. Others will stare for hours and see nothing wrong at all.

That, my friends, is a dangling participle. We all do it from time to time, dangle our participles, without realising we have done so. I can sometimes read past them without noticing.

A participle is an adjectival form derived from a verb. ‘Walking’ is the present participle of the verb ‘to walk’. We use it as a verb with the auxiliary verb ‘to be’: ‘he is walking’; ‘he was walking’. But we can also use it as an adjective to describe something: ‘He is a walking, talking dictionary.’

In the sentence above ‘walking’ is not being used as a verb. The subject and auxiliary verb are absent. It is being used to describe something. It is being used adjectivally. We might say, ‘There he was, walking along the beach.’ Here, ‘walking along the beach’ describes ‘him’, much as ‘dressed’ does in this sentence: ‘There he was, walking along the beach, dressed in a pink kimono.’ ‘Dressed’ is a past participle.

So what is wrong with the sentence at the head of this blog? ‘Walking’ needs an accompanying noun to describe. Taken as it stands, ‘walking’ describes the sun. If we rewrite this sentence we can see the problem more clearly: ‘The sun, walking along the beach, shone brightly in my eyes.’ Now perhaps the sun is walking along the beach in the strange world we are creating here. But probably not.

What is meant by this sentence is: ‘As I was walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ If this is what you mean, then, well ... it’s probably a good idea to write it. You might also want to say, ‘Glaring up above, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ ‘Glaring’ is quite happy to describe the sun. ‘Walking’—I have it on good authority—generally is not.

We are quite capable of dangling other things as well; participles are not alone in suffering this indignity. ‘At the age of eight, my family emigrated to Australia.’ Ah, okay. My family was eight years old? Clearly I mean: ‘When I was eight years old, my family emigrated to Australia.’ A useful rule of thumb is: If you mean one thing, don’t say another.

Of course it is easy for our eye to slip over things like this when we have written them ourselves. We know what we meant, so that’s what we read. Indeed, dangling bits are so common that we usually know what the person meant even when we didn’t write it ourselves. But they do jar. When I come across one I do just have to shake my head momentarily to dislodge the image of Old Sol strolling along the beach on (what would be) a very sunny day.

So be very, very careful about what you leave dangling out there.


  1. Philip, I love this post. It made me laugh (dangling participles always do, for some reason), and of course it reminded me that great minds flow in the same channels -- I posted very much the same thing a week ago ( My old textbook's preferred term is "dangling modifier", because it's not only participles that can dangle, but certainly they are the silliest ones.

  2. As long as people remember that you can describe too much! A writer I am helping uses whereby or as a result in every second sentence. I am editing for him and taking out almost all of them! Great article.