Monday, October 6, 2014

Grammar Nerds: Dangling Present Participles

 
If you don't care much about grammar specifics, this series of posts won't be for you. However, I know plenty of fellow grammar nerd readers: people like me who feel thrown out of a good story by a misplaced comma or sudden tense shift. 

Today's focus: dangling present participles.
First things first: what's a participle? Well, a participle is a verb that's used to modify a noun. (In other words, it's a verb acting more like an adjective or adverb.) Example: That sneezing girl left her umbrella in the cafe. Though a verb, "sneezing" is being used more like an adjective, as a way to describe the noun "girl." Present participles in particular always end in -"ing," making them relatively easy to identify.
Now let's move on to dangling present participles. A participle should have a clear subject, such as in the case of: Walking backwards, I counted to ten. “I” is the subject that is “walking backwards.” However, with a dangling participle the participle isn’t describing the word that the writer intended. Consider the following sentence: Filled with fluffy white clouds, Christine looked up at the sky. I think it’s a fair guess with such a sentence that the author means the fluffy white clouds are in the sky, but currently the present participle phrase is attached to the subject “Christine” and so instead says that Christine is “filled with fluffy white clouds.”

I have another frustration with present participle phrases in writing that is more a stylistic preference. It’s technically grammatically acceptable for a present participle to describe one action that takes place before another action. Yet the present tense verb always makes me feel like the two actions should be taking place simultaneously. By my logic, Clapping my hands, I rose from my seat. is a suitable sentence because you can clap your hands as you stand up from your seat. What annoys me are sentences more like Throwing back the sheets, she ran down the stairs. or Picking up the knife, Kate chopped the vegetables for dinner. You throw off your sheets and then run downstairs. You pick up the knife and then you chop the vegetables. Grammatically, these sentences are adequate, but they nevertheless always strike me as sloppy writing and I notice immediately when a writer uses present participles like this with notable frequency.

Take away: consider your sentence structure. What do you mean to say and is that what your sentence actually conveys? Most important take away, though: never dangle your participles!

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