I’m blogging today about a grammatical pet peeve of mine: the misuse of participial phrases.
Participles are tricky little devils. They are verb forms used as adjectives. They come in three forms: past, present, and perfect. Past participles most often end in –ed or –en. Present participles end in –ing. Perfect participles combine having and the past participle. Examples are “having eaten,” “having written,” and “having looked.” Participles introduce participial phrases that modify nouns. Here are some examples. “Wandering through the woods, we spotted many types of fungi and lichens.” “Having finished their dinner, the guests helped their hostess clear the table.” “Thrown against the wall, the ball bounced back and hit me on the forehead.”
Writers need to be careful to use participial phrases correctly. There are two incorrect usages that occur too often in written work that does not receive careful editing. The first is the dangling participle.
A participial phrase, like a single adjective, is used to modify a noun or pronoun. In the examples above, the phrase “wandering through the woods” modifies the pronoun “we.” The phrase “having finished their dinner” modifies the noun “guests.” The phrase “thrown against the wall” modifies the noun “ball.” A dangling participle is one that does not logically modify the noun it precedes. It “dangles” because it is an adjective with no noun to modify. Here is an example: “After eating our dinner the sky cleared up.” Its position in the sentence indicates that the phrase should modify the subject of the main clause, but the subject is “sky,” and the sky did not eat our dinner. So the participle dangles with no noun to modify. The sentence can easily be corrected by supplying a subject for the phrase to modify: “After eating our dinner, we were pleased to see the sky clear up,” or “After we had eaten our dinner, the sky cleared up.”
Returning to the sentences I used as examples in the first paragraph, I’ll show you how a dangling participle makes the sentence ludicrous. “Wandering through the woods, many types of fungi and lichens proved easy to spot.” The sentence now has the fungi and lichens wandering through the woods. “Having finished their dinner, the table was quickly cleared off so that the guests could play cards.” Here the table has eaten the dinner. “Thrown against the wall, I was hit on the forehead when the ball bounced back.” Ouch! Being thrown against that wall really hurt!
Here are two examples of dangling participles I spotted recently when reading stories of folks finding or rescuing pets. “After showing an apartment in one of our buildings, a big, dirty gray cat crawled from under the porch and rubbed against my leg.” “Being all white, I was going to name her Snowball.” The people who wrote these aren’t professional writers and merely wished to express their happiness at acquiring the right pet for them, so they can probably be excused for the inadvertent humor of having “a big, dirty gray cat” showing an apartment or the pet adopter “being all white.” A professional writer should never make this sort of mistake. Yet here is an example from a published work: “Splashing aftershave on his freshly shaved face, the sting on his skin was stimulating.”
The second common error in the use of participial phrases is one I’ve seen more often in work by professional writers. The action expressed in the participial phrase must be simultaneous with the action of the main clause. In the sentence “Wandering through the woods, we spotted many types of fungi and lichens,” the action of spotting the fungi and lichens is simultaneous with the action of wandering through the woods. But in a sentence like this, “Standing, he went to the coffee machine,” the action of standing is not simultaneous with going to the coffee machine. One follows the other. It would be simpler and more correct to say, “He stood and went to the coffee machine.” Because writers like to vary their sentence structure, they can too easily fall into the trap of making mistakes like the one just quoted or like this one—“ Pulling into the driveway, he got out of the car.” He did not get out of the car while pulling into the driveway. What he did was pull into the driveway, park the car, and get out. Such an error is easy to make, but it is just as easy to correct. The author or copy editor should check participial phrases to be certain they reflect action that can occur simultaneously with the action in the main clause.
One other caution about participial phrases: Don’t overuse them! They are a way to vary sentence structure, but they stand out and distract when overused. A simple, declarative sentence does not call attention to itself, but a large number of sentences that begin with a participial phrase will divert the reader’s attention from the story to the structure.