A dangling participle walks into a bar. Sighing as he sits, the mirror behind the bar catches his weary reflection. ‘How’s it going, DP?’ says the barman. ‘Not good,’ says the dangling participle, ‘subjectively speaking, I’m feeling a little mixed up.’
Yes, we’re on the thorny subject of dangling participles. Look closely at the second sentence in the above paragraph, and ask yourself, who is sighing and sitting? The DP or the mirror behind the bar?
How about these other examples:
Driving to work, the sun came out from behind the clouds.
Turning the corner, the hotel appeared in sight.
Being in bad condition, I bought the book cheaply.
So here’s the tech speak: an introductory participial phrase should give more information about (modify) the subject of the main sentence. In the above cases, the subject of the main sentence is ‘mirror’, ‘sun’, ‘hotel’ and ‘I’ respectively. See the difficulty? The mirror isn’t sitting and sighing, presumably the sun wasn’t driving to work, the hotel didn’t turn the corner and, equally, I bought the book cheaply because it was in bad condition, not because I was. So the modifier is misplaced or dangling.
And the glitch in the matrix reference? Well, there is a scene in the film The Matrix where a cat climbs a stairs and the film glitches: it’s as if the cat imperceptibly rewinds itself and there is a moment of double-take or déjà vu. For me, dangling participles cause the same kind of problem in prose. Your reader may or may not be able to tell you the technical reason for the stumble or the double-take, but they will clock it on some level, and it could have a detrimental effect on their enjoyment of your writing, particularly if there is more than one or two in the manuscript. So, next time you lead with a participial phrase, please make sure there’s nothing dangling!
Using introductory participial phrases
Even if you get it right, you should still spare a thought for the perils of overuse. Opening with participial phrases can give a sentence fluidity and sense of energy, but check out the following:
Leaving his office, Johnny saw Simon was still working late. Stepping out into the street, he noticed the traffic was at a standstill. Raising his arm, he hailed a taxi cab. Riding in the taxi cab, Johnny noticed the taxi driver was actually a large seething mass of green alien plasma. Being alarmed, he shouted at the driver to stop. Being really annoyed by all the participial beginnings, the driver did not oblige. Hurtling through space in an alien spaceship, Johnny wished he’d been more careful with his sentence openings.
Yes, this cautionary tale of alien abduction is obviously an exaggeration of the problem, but it serves as a good illustration of the dangers of unintentional patterns in your prose which can ruin the effect of what you are actually trying to achieve.