I Know This is Embarrassing, but Your Participle is Dangling

Let’s discuss the dangling participle, shall we?… While improper modifier usage can sometimes be amusing, these mistakes are a moderately serious grammar transgression as they can confuse the reader.

No worries – we won’t leave you dangling. Read on to learn what is involved in this particular grammar faux pas and what you can do to correct and avoid this type of error.

What is a Dangling Participle?

Two significant errors take place involving modifiers: dangling and misplaced modifiers.

A dangling participle is a word or phrase that modifies an unintended subject or refers to a subject that is AWOL. In other words, the placement makes this idea seem to describe the wrong person, or the person represented by the concept is unknown.

A misplaced modifier happens when, even if its subject is present, the location of the phrase makes it appear that someone or something else is the recipient of the idea.

Here is an example of each situation, starting with dangling participles.

Lying in bed, my alarm clock went off.

Look at that sentence closely. While it is easy to infer some mystery first-person “I” is the one in bed, the wording of the sentence implies that the alarm clock itself is the one chilling in the sack.

This error is a dangling participle because “lying in bed” is hanging out with no one to modify. Why? Because the subject of the sentence (the person acting in this case) is absent from the sentence.

That is, unless, for whatever bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland reason, the alarm clock itself is actually enjoying a nice nap in the narrator’s bed when this event occurs.

Let’s take a look at another situation:

Wailing in misery, her ice cream splattered on the sidewalk.

If ice cream could wail in misery, splattering on the sidewalk would be as good a reason as any to do so. However, the use of “her” implies a missing subject, probably a little girl, as wailing over dropped ice cream is more often (but not always) associated with juveniles rather than adults.

How Can I Fix Dangling Participles?

The easiest way to solve the problem is to provide the missing subject within the sentence. That may mean you have to tweak the sentence slightly so that it not only makes sense but also flows appropriately.

These are possible solutions to the examples from the previous section:

Original: Lying in bed, my alarm clock went off.

As I was lying in bed, my alarm clock went off.


I was lying in bed when my alarm clock went off.

There are multiple ways to construct the sentence to clarify the intended meaning.

Original: Wailing in misery, her ice cream splattered on the sidewalk.

My mother wailed in misery as her ice cream splattered on the sidewalk.


When her ice cream splattered on the sidewalk, my mother wailed in misery.

See, I tried to tell you it’s not always children who scream for ice cream.

Misplaced Modifiers and Quick Fixes

While often incorrectly considered a dangling participle, misplaced modifiers are a different (although similar) error. In this situation, the subject may be in the sentence somewhere, yet the placement of a modifier makes it unclear who that intended subject is and can create some humorous situations.

The woman gave treats to the children in colorful paper bags.

Wait, why are the children in colorful paper bags? OH. The treats are in the bags. Because the modifying phrase “in colorful paper bags” is not next to the word it modifies, creating an amusing misunderstanding.

This is an easy fix: rearrange that phrase to be closer to the subject it describes.

The woman gave treats in colorful paper bags to the children.

Can you see the problem with the following sentence?

Leaving a trail of ooze along the floor, Danny frowned at the slug.

We can only hope this is not some sort of disgusting competition and that the modifying expression “leaving a trail of ooze along the floor” is supposed to modify the slug and not Danny.

Once more, the simple solution is to put the modifier next to its subject, like so:

Danny frowned at the slug leaving a trail of ooze along the floor.

Now that you have a better understanding of these two modifier mistakes, review your writing to make sure that you haven’t inadvertently made either of these mistakes.

While your writing may not be quite as enjoyable, you will undoubtedly find greater success as a writer.

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By James Smith

Described as an "English Guru," James Smith holds a Master's degree in English from Arkansas Tech University, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a minor in ESL. James is a sought after writer and editor with university teaching experience.

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