Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part IV. Special Challenges for Fiction Writers

Chapter 19. Dangling Participles and Misplaced Modifiers

Your readers will find you extremely funny for all the wrong reasons if you leave your participles dangling and your modifiers misplaced.

In this chapter, I need to define a few grammatical terms for you so that you can easily spot and fix problem sentences. I’ll keep it as straightforward as possible, only delving in to what you need to know. Hang in there. It’ll be worth it. (Or, at the very least, it’ll give you a great excuse to eat some chocolate to feel better afterward.)

Remember, every complete sentence needs two things: a subject and a predicate. Because of how important this is, I’m going to cover it quickly again.

The subject is the thing the sentence is about. (Think “test subject” in an experiment.)

I am tired of hearing about subjects and predicates.

My black cat caught a mouse for me.

Emily and Bob’s house fell down.

Mosquitoes bite.

The predicate tells us something about the subject. It might tell us what the subject did, what it looks like, etc. (I like to remember this as a friend of prediction, which tells us something about the future.)

am tired of hearing about subjects and predicates.

My black cat caught a mouse for me.

Emily and Bob’s house fell down.

Mosquitoes bite.

The important thing to remember about the predicate is that it contains a verb. (A verb describes an action, state of being, or relationship between two things.)

am tired of hearing about subjects and predicates.

My black cat caught a mouse for me.

Emily and Bob’s house fell down.

Mosquitoes bite.

All a predicate needs to be complete is a verb (as you can see in the last example.)

Now here’s where it gets a little more complicated, because we need to talk about independent clauses, dependent clauses, and phrases.

These are all parts of a sentence. Think of the sentence like a book, and these other things are like chapters and scenes.

Any time you put a subject and a predicate together, you have a clause.

An independent clause can stand alone. This should make sense if you think about an independent person. They like to do things on their own.

My husband is an editor.

I walked to the store.

Both of these are independent clauses because they’re complete sentences. The underlined part below is also an independent clause.

As I walked to the store, I saw a deer.

We call the underlined part independent because, if we took it out of the sentence, it still makes sense. Like this…

I saw a deer.

Think of independent clauses like chapters within a book that could be a complete short story on their own, and which would make sense even if you removed them from the book.

dependent clause needs something else to complete it. (Just like a dependent person needs someone else’s emotional or physical support.)

As I walked to the store, I saw a deer.

If you separate out the underlined part, you should instinctively sense that something is missing.

As I walked to the store,

You feel like you should ask “What happened?” It doesn’t make any sense on its own. It needs the rest of the sentence.

Think of dependent clauses like chapters within a book that wouldn’t make sense if you removed them from the context of the rest of the story.

Notice how both the dependent and independent clauses contain a subject (underlined) and a predicate (bolded and italicized).

As I walked to the storeI saw a deer.

Remember that a clause requires both a subject and a predicate. Clause = clasp.

phrase is a related group of words that doesn’t qualify as a clause because it’s missing either a subject or a predicate. I’ve underlined the phrase in the sentence below.

I walked to the store.

I know this might seem confusing because earlier I said that to the store was part of the predicate. And it is—but it isn’t the whole predicate.

Think of the phrase like a scene contributing to a bigger chapter in a book.

So now we’re ready to move on to spotting out-of-place modifiers.

modifier describes or qualifies another element within the sentence.

We run into the problem of dangling participles and misplaced modifiers because, unlike other languages, in English, the role a word plays in a sentence is determined by its location, rather than by a change in the ending.

DANGLING PARTICIPLES

A participle is just the –ing form of a verb.

Walk (verb) - walking (present participle)

Fall (verb) - falling (present participle)

Laugh (verb) - laughing (present participle)

A participle can take part in a participial phrase that modifies a noun. The participial phrase is underlined below.

Hiking the trail, I felt a sense of peace.

See how it doesn’t have a subject, so it’s a phrase (not a clause), and it’s a participial phrase because it uses a participle (the –ing form of a verb). Easier than you thought, right?

A participial phrase needs to bond to a subject noun. If you don’t provide it with a proper one, it’ll bond to whatever noun is closest. The result is like when a duckling imprints on a dog.

When that happens, we call it a dangling participial. A dangling participle is a participle or a participial phrase that modifies the wrong noun. It attempts to modify something that isn’t the proper subject of the sentence.

Walking down the road, the house came into view.

A house taking a walk? I’d buy tickets to see that.

Featuring a hot tub and extra-fluffy pillows, we highly recommend this hotel’s suites for honeymooning couples.

The mental image of people with hot tubs where their bellies should be and pillows for arms… I probably won’t stop laughing long enough to read the rest of what you’ve written. You’ll see sentences like that one all the time on travel sites, but that doesn’t make it right.

Here’s another one.

After rotting in the back of the fridge for three months, my husband cleaned out his forgotten leftovers.

Based on this sentence, I need to take my husband to a doctor to find out why he’s rotting.

How could we fix these?

Wrong:

Walking down the road, the house came into view.

Correction:

We could change the participial phrase into a dependent clause so…

As we walked down the road, the house came into view.

Correction:

We could break the sentence into two independent clauses.

We walked down the road, and the house came into view.

MISPLACED MODIFIERS

Remember that a dangling participle makes the wrong noun the subject of the sentence.

A misplaced modifier is a modifier that describes or qualifies something other than what we want it to.

As a soccer mom, Ellen’s van was always full of boys.

A van that can procreate. Will medical marvels never cease?

Correct Version: As a soccer mom, Ellen found her van was always full of boys.

Also Correct: Always full of boys, Ellen’s van marked her as a soccer mom.

Let me give you another example.

Overweight and balding, the vet says our cat might have hormone problems.

Is your cat overweight and balding, or is your vet overweight and balding? Because in this sentence, it’s your vet, and I have to wonder what that has to do with your cat’s hormone problems.

Corrected Version: The vet says that our cat’s balding and excessive weight could be symptoms of hormone problems.

Now it’s clear that your cat is the fat, balding one. And you won’t accidentally insult your vet.

One more example before we move on. Misplaced modifiers can come in many forms, and I don’t want you to think they only happen when a comma is involved. They can sneak themselves into the middle of a sentence as well.

Leaning over the body, she looked into the empty man’s eyes.

How does she know the man is empty? Has he been gutted?

Corrected Version: Leaning over the body, she looked into the man’s empty eyes.

In this version, it’s clear that his eyes are empty of life.

CONFUSED MODIFIERS

A confused modifier is something that could modify more than one thing in the sentence. Consequently, the meaning of the sentence is unclear.

My boss said on Friday we’d have to stay late.

On Friday could be modifying when the boss spoke or when they’d have to work late.

Depending on which meaning you intended, you’d rewrite the sentence to read…

On Friday, my boss said we’d have to work late.

My boss said we’d have to work late on Friday.

Let’s look at another example.

The boy who was profiled in the local newspaper recently had a chance to meet his hero.

Was he recently profiled in the newspaper or did he recently have a chance to meet his hero? This sentence could mean either. Here’s how you could fix this depending on what you meant.

The boy who was recently profiled in the local newspaper had a chance to meet his hero.

The boy who was profiled in the local newspaper had a chance to meet his hero recently.

The real trouble with confused modifiers is that, if we happen to read the sentence the intended way, we don’t realize anything is wrong. The key is to train ourselves to recognize when the modifier is unclear and also to have a second person go over our work whenever possible.