Do you dangle your participles?

The grammar scolds1­ say you shouldn’t use dangling participles or other modifiers. Before we consider their arguments, let’s look at a couple of examples of what we mean:

Hopefully the judge will rule in our client’s favor.

To summarize, unemployment remains the state’s major economic and social problem.2

Did you find either example difficult to understand? Did either offend your sense of grammatical righteousness? I thought not.

Yet the scolds would pounce on these. Take the first example, which is shorter and easier to explain. They would say that “hopefully” is a participle and has to modify the subject of the sentence, “the judge”. They are right that “hopefully” is a participle. But there is no logical or grammatical reason that it can’t modify the speaker of the sentence, which is clearly what it does.

There is, however, a danger is dangling your participles. Because they can modify more than one part of a sentence, you can create ambiguity, sometimes hilariously so:

I saw a dead cow driving over here.

Locked in a safe for over 30 years man finds a fortune in gold coins.2

Steven Pinker says that a modifier can dangle when its implied subject is the writer and the reader (as with “to summarize” in the second example above).

So, to summarize, the best advice may be: undangle your modifier if (1) it creates ambiguity or (2) you wish to avoid a grammar scolding.

See you next time!

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  1. For example, see Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style, 2nd Ed. 1992 Oxford University Press section 2.24 at 45-48. Even Garner admits that some danglers are now accepted as prepositions, e.g., “considering the outcry”. This seems to me a stretch as considering is very verb like, but there you are.
  2. Examples taken or derived from Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style, 2014 Viking (Penguin Group)

bill-lawrence

Bill Lawrence worked in US law firms and multinational companies until 2001. For the past 15 years Bill has been a writing coach at the Polytechnic University’s Centre for Business and Professional English. He has also presented seminars to law firms on coaching lawyers on effective writing.

Published by Hughes Castell

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