5.112–13 Dangling Participles and Gerunds
“Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.”
“I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.”
“The company’s refrigerator held microwavable lunches for 18 employees frozen in the top compartment.”*
Most of us don’t have to worry about overlooking gaffes as obvious as these, but more subtle danglers—or misplaced modifiers—sometimes sneak by even the most careful writer or editor.
As the word misplaced suggests, the problem lies in location. Moving things around a bit is usually the best solution:
—“Coming down the stairs for dinner, I smelled the oysters.”
—“Marvin watched the salad dressing oozing slowly across the floor.”
—“The company’s refrigerator held microwavable lunches frozen in the top compartment for 18 employees.”
To avoid danglers, keep an eye on these red flags:
Watch out for participles (verbs ending with -ing and –ed) that modify the wrong noun (CMOS 5.112).
Fertilized in the spring before the heavy rains, the farmers were disappointed in the crops.
—Move fertilized closer to crops, so it’s clear that the farmers weren’t fertilized: The farmers were disappointed in the crops fertilized in the spring before the heavy rains.
Ellen noticed the new road markings cycling on the lake path yesterday.
—Move cycling so it’s closer to Ellen than to “the new road markings”: Cycling on the lake path yesterday, Ellen noticed the new road markings.
A gerund (a participle used as a noun) is another potential dangler (CMOS 5.113).
After staying up all night to finish my last paper, the coffee pot burned itself out.
—Here, we should assume that the coffee pot didn’t write the paper and identify who did: After I stayed up all night to finish my last exam, the coffee pot burned itself out.
“It” or “There” as Subject
Participles and gerunds seem to dangle more easily when it or there is the subject of a following independent clause (CMOS 5.112).
Slipping across the soapy floor, it was impossible to avoid a collision.
—Rewrite to show who was slipping: As we slipped across the soapy floor, it was impossible to avoid a collision.
By ordering all the books at once, there was a big savings on postage.
—Make it clear who saved: By ordering all the books at once, she saved a lot on postage.
The passive voice tends to obscure danglers. Why? Maybe it’s because one of the purposes of the passive is to obscure things. “Mistakes were made” famously fails to reveal who made the mistakes.
Counting all the cupcakes, the numbers were revised to show how many were missing.
—Who did the counting? The numbers? Rather: Counting all the cupcakes, we revised the numbers to show how many were missing.
*These three danglers have been listed in many online posts for a long time, without attribution. We saw them in “The Best Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers of All Time,” The Writing Center @ the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2009, accessed June 17, 2016; and Constance Hale, “Dangle These in Front of a Grammarian!” Sin & Syntax (blog), May 31, 2012, accessed June 17, 2016.
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