Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

With the Grammar 101 series on this blog, I don’t typically dive into the complex technicalities of the English language. You don’t really need to know all the terminology in order to avoid making grammatical mistakes, but it is helpful to know that today’s post will be approaching something called a dangling participle. The best way to illustrate this is with an example.

Waiting for hours in the rain, the arriving bus was a very welcome sight.

Do you see the problem with that sentence? The first part of the sentence, “waiting for hours in the rain,” is called a dangling participle. This is because it is left without the right subject to modify. A dangling participle modifies an unintended subject. The way the sentence is structured, it makes it sound like the bus was waiting for hours in the rain. That’s not right.

The bus wasn’t the one waiting in the rain; I was the one waiting in the rain. As such, we need to move or introduce that subject closer to the participle.

Waiting for hours in the rain, I was happy to see the arriving bus.

That makes a lot more sense, don’t you think? The biggest problem with dangling participles is one of ambiguity. This is similar to the problems we encounter with unclear pronouns and list structure. Some people will say that you don’t need perfect grammar as long as you are understood, but a dangling participle could lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Let’s look at another example.

Eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, I was disgusted by Kobayashi.

Again, there is some confusion here. The sentence makes it sound like I was the one who ate all those hot dogs, but what we really mean to say is that Kobayashi was the one doing the eating. It’s far better to reword the sentence like this:

Eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, Kobayashi disgusted me.

The meaning here is far clearer, even if the sentence itself perhaps isn’t the best.

Dangling participles don’t always appear at the beginning of sentences, but that is the most common place for you to find them. You’ll also usually find the -ing form of the verb there to form what is called a participial phrase, which really acts like an adjective. In the above examples, the participial phrases are modifying or describing “I” and “Kobayashi,” respectively.

Reading through today’s post, you have hopefully gained a better understanding of the dangling participle and will be better prepared to avoid making that error in your writing. Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 topic? Do let me know by posting a comment below.