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Little Sins (Dangling Participles)

Updated: Jul 10

Writing errors in fiction can be minor irritants (in my former career in a pharmacy dispensary, they could be dangerous). If you fluff a few apostrophes or confuse the occasional word your reader’s engagement will be the victim. Make too many errors, and your story fails. You owe it to your story to look out for these little sins and keep your message clear.

A ginger tabby cat hangs from a wire fence by his claws

Sin 1: dangling participles

I have a confession. As a proofreader, it’s my job to fix any grammatical errors in your writing, but I always feel a twinge of regret when I exorcise a dangling participle. I’m oddly fond of them.


What is a dangling participle?

Besides an excuse for a juvenile giggle at the name, a dangling participle is a common culprit for mangled sentences.


A participle is a verb form with a -ed or -ing ending.


Some combine with ‘have’ or ‘be’ to form compound word forms (i.e. ‘I have been writing’).


Participles can be used as adjectives to modify nouns; ‘the singing nun’ for instance.


A participle is dangling when it has modified the wrong noun, either because it is too far away from its subject or because the subject has completely dropped out of the sentence. Like this:


Hanging from the fence, I nerfed the cat. (Not a chance. My aim is terrible. Particularly when I’m hanging from the fence).


Walking into the kitchen, the frying pan was on fire. (My cookware is not capable of locomotion. Though it might be on fire if I let my partner cook).


Editing a manuscript, my cat sat on my keyboard. (Sadly, I do not have feline workers helping me to edit).


Dangling participles are often silly, amusing or downright weird – hence my enjoyment. But they are also distracting, confusing, and can jettison your reader straight out of your story.


So, they must go.


How to avoid a dangling participle

Remember what the subject of your sentence is and move it closer to the verb it is enacting. You may also have to introduce additional words into the sentence.


I nerfed the cat that was hanging from the fence.


Walking into the kitchen, I discovered the frying pan was on fire.


While I was editing a manuscript, my cat sat on my keyboard.


The sentence is now clear and should no longer trip your reader up.


Unless you deliberately want to make your reader pause and reconsider the last sentence, you want to avoid any snag that demands interpretation. And if that pause is needed, there are far more elegant ways of doing it than making your reader wonder who (or what) just walked into the kitchen.


Despite my regret, the dangling participle is one of those grammatical howlers that should be avoided and always meets the red pen (or markup) of disapproval.


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