Writing Tools: Dangling Gerund Like Ghost Frets In Shadows

Writing Tools: Dangling Gerund Like Ghost Frets In Shadows

Grammar tip: What is a dangling participle? A participle, not related grammatically to an intended noun phrase which it modifies, is called a dangling participle.

Staff ReporterUpdated: Sunday, February 04, 2024, 12:20 PM IST
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Writing Tools: Dangling Gerund Like Ghost Frets In Shadows |

GHOST: ‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me. So the whole of Denmark, by a forged process of my death, is rankly abused – William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh): A dangling participle or a hanging participle is like a lantern that gets broken when the kids engage in a little horseplay. The broken lamp causes chaos. Such participle may also cause confusion to the reader. Many renowned authors have failed to appreciate its power to damage a sentence.

Even the great William Shakespeare failed to identify it or whether he did so knowingly is not known. Yet the error is there.

What is a dangling participle? A participle, not related grammatically to an intended noun phrase which it modifies, is called a dangling participle.

A dangler or an unrelated modifier often amuses the reader besides causing confusion to them.

A participle clause does not generally contain a subject. Therefore, if it is placed near the subject of the main clause, there should be no confusion. Nor should it become funny. In such cases, it is understood that the participle is qualifying certain noun or certain subject of a sentence. Yet failure to follow this rule results in chaos.

Speaking to her on the phone the other day, her praise for her colleagues was unstinting – Daily Telegraph, June 9, 1989.

The sentence looks clean. Yet it is equally clear that neither the lady herself nor her praise for her colleague was speaking to her on the phone.

The sentence is, however, ungrammatical. The writer of this sentence failed to mention who was speaking and who she was speaking to. To a reader, it seems a ghost was speaking to another, heaping praises on a colleague who, too, is a ghost.

The correct sentence should have been – when she was speaking to a friend over the phone the other day, she heaped praises on her colleagues.

The hanging participle is generally condemned as ungrammatical, rather than a mere error of style. But it has long been used, and most famously by Shakespeare in Hamlet:

Sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me – W Shakespeare, Hamlet

The question is – who was sleeping in the orchard? The stinger or the stung?

Running down the street in high heels, my dog was too fast for me to catch.

Really? Does your dog wear high heels? Is he so hot?

Walking on the street, my head was aching.

Your head is so nice that it has given a break to your legs from that tiresome walking. Such style of walking may evoke sniggers among the onlookers, because you have turned the street into a circus ring. That is great.

It is, however, not known whether we should call these units – phrases or clauses.

The Oxford English Grammar calls these participial clauses. Others call these only phrases. Theoretical stuff, however, should not come in the way of our handling them.

Ergo where we put them is more important than what we call them. The modifier ending in “-ing” is called progressive participle. This can be used before a noun to qualify it. But a writer has to be careful about its misuse.

Daydreaming about Miss X, Mr Y’s foot went right into a pothole.

It seems Mr Y has one smart foot. Or, there is the hand of the ghost called the dangling participle behind Mr Y. A dangling participle often modifies a wrong noun. This is the reason why it seems “Mr Y’s foot was daydreaming and not Mr Y.” We should daydream, but not in this way.

Therefore, to correct it, what we should do is that instead of writing 'foot' we should use “Mr Y.”

The sentence should have been – Daydreaming about Miss X, Mr Y stepped in a pothole.

Wait. There is one more danger. A few phrases are identical to gerund or verbal noun. But they can become confusing.

Visiting relatives can be fun.

Does this signify the act of visiting (as a verbal noun or gerund) can be fun or that the relatives visiting you (visiting as a modifier) can be fun? Such examples often crop up in professional writing.

A 70-year-old man has lost his walking stick. Can his stick walk? If that happens, the road will be empty.

Similarly, a sticker on a water tank says: It is drinking water. Is the tank drinking water? Can it do so? In both the cases a hyphen would have been enough to make everything clear.

To avoid danglers, we must stay vigilant. It slowly becomes part of the brain.

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