Many a school child has been stricken with fear at the words “dangling participle.” They see the correction, they understand what the teacher says…sort of…and then they go ahead and dangle another participle with a seemingly blatant disregard of prior feedback.
Part of the issue may lie with the name of this mistake. Dangling participle. They’ve also been called hanging or unattached participles. Shakespeare asks us “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” So then we can call it a different name – a less threatening name – and it would still be the same thing, right? I suppose this might work up to a point, but from experiences trying this renaming technique with other grammatical issues, it only goes so far to ease student anxiety and promote retention of the correct structure. What really needs to happen is that the item should be understood more clearly; perhaps only then will its name no longer be so fearsome.
What is this monstrous beast then? It is essentially a descriptive phrase, something that tells us more about an action. It’s a specific kind of descriptive phrase, however, that contains a verb in the -ing form. Let’s start a step or two back:
While I was staring at the Bugatti, I bumped into a blind man.
The first part of that sentence is a dependent clause. It describes what I was doing (staring) when something else happened (I bumped into a blind man). This dependent clause can not stand on its own, but it can be shortened into a participial phrase by skimming some of the fat:
Staring at the Bugatti, I bumped into a blind man.
What is important to note here is that the meaning has not changed. Because the subject was the same for both verbs in the sentence, we can eliminated the redundancy. We still understand that the first part of the sentence still describes my actions because the now-implied subject of the participial phrase (staring at the Bugatti) takes the same subject as the independent clause (I bumped into a blind man) of the sentence.
Now imagine, if you can, the following situation:
Staring at the Bugatti, a blind man suddenly stepped in front of me and I bumped into him.
Here, we have no choice but to assign the action of staring at the Bugatti to the blind man, since he is the subject of the independent clause. And I ask you…would a blind man stare at a Bugatti? Well, he might if he were trying to mess with you, but the fact is, this sentence has a different meaning from the first one because the subject has changed.
Let’s consider an even less likely scenario:
Bumping into the blind man, the Bugatti turned the corner and drove out of sight.
Contextually, it makes sense to think that while I was in the midst of knocking down a poor, defenseless blind man, the object that made me so distracted was no longer in my vision. Grammatically, however, this sentence relates a situation in which the Bugatti bumped into an old man before driving off. It’s a clear case of hit and run by self-aware and self-propelled Bugatti.
I’ll admit – it’s a tricky thing to remember, and it certainly catches a lot of people. One of the most common examples I see in my students’ writing is something along the lines of:
Growing up as a child, my mother always made me breakfast.
It would be very difficult, I imagine, for a child to make breakfast for her future children. It would probably get quite stale by the time the children were able to eat it. Clearly, the writer doesn’t realize that the reader interprets (or should interpret) this differently. In the writer’s mind, she is the child and the action that happened while she was growing up was that her mother made her breakfast.
Here’s another example:
When visiting another country, natives can tell Americans apart from other tourists.
So, when natives are visiting another country? Or when Americans are visiting another country? Who’s the tourist, the native or the American? And they can tell the Americans apart from other tourists…in another country? Or in the native country? Wait…who’s on first?
The main problem, as you may see, is that of clarity. As most other languages do, English has both redundancy in the language, and ways to eliminate that redundancy for the sake of brevity or style variation. Languages have this tendency towards redundancy so we can give our listeners/readers as many chances as possible to understand our message. In speaking, this is more important because speech takes place at a much higher speed.
So we may repeat ourselves when speaking, but in writing, concision is often valued, and to that end, certain stylistic techniques allow us to shave off some of those repeated subjects, for example. However, when the technique is improperly used, then comprehension suffers and the message is compromised.
I constantly fight with my students to drive this point home and tear them away from their long-held belief that these rules were made simply to allow English teachers to nitpick. I often have to resort to some of the more ridiculous examples I can find, just so they can finally understand the error in the meaning of the sentence that arose from their grammatical mistake.
“Huh,” they say, “grammar actually means stuff.”
It’s a start.