Monday, February 24, 2014

Dangling Participles, Misplaced Modifiers, and Other Awkward Constructions

New title for Style That Sizzles
by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Potential Problems to Avoid with Participles     

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I find even my smartest, most talented authors sometimes inadvertently commit gaffes with participles, which can affect the meaning of the sentence. Some readers may notice these style blunders, and others may just feel subliminally confused or inexplicably mildly irritated.

Problems with participles, dangling or otherwise:

Participles are verbs that end in –ing (present participle) or –ed (past participle). According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “The present participle (-ing verb) denotes the verb’s action as in progress or incomplete at the time expressed by the sentence’s principal verb.” In other words, an –ing verb expresses an action that is still taking place when another action occurs.

For example, “As he was driving on the freeway, a police car whizzed past, lights flashing and sirens blaring.” Or “She escaped while the house was still burning.”

So –ing verbs are mainly used for ongoing actions or to indicate an action that is still taking place when another action occurs. Here are some examples of incorrect use of participles:

~ Logistical impossibilities

What’s wrong with these sentences?

Hurrying up the sidewalk, she ran into her office building.

Striding across the lobby, he jabbed the button for the elevator.

Tapping her toes impatiently, she dashed into a free elevator that stopped.

What’s the problem ? Logistics. The -ing verb indicates that the first action is still happening when the second one occurs, but it’s physically impossible. She can’t run into her office building while hurrying up the sidewalk – it’s physically impossible. And if he’s still striding across the lobby, he can’t be jabbing the elevator button. Nor can she tap her toes while dashing into an elevator!

~ Check those sentences starting with -ing verbs.

Newbie writers often start sentence after sentence with -ing verbs (participles). That’s another sign of amateurish writing, and causes logistic problems. Besides being repetitive and boring, this sentence construction usually ends up describing a physically impossible series of actions – sequential actions described as if they’re simultaneous, as in the examples above.

Here’s another one: “Pulling the car over to the curb, she ran up the sidewalk.” She can’t run up the walk while she’s pulling over to the curb. It should be something like, “She pulled the car over to the curb, parked, then ran up the sidewalk.” Or “After pulling the car over to the curb, she jumped out and ran up the sidewalk.”

So vary your sentence structure, and if you start a sentence or clause with an –ing verb, make sure it works.

~ Don't get caught with your participles dangling!

According to Merriam-Webster, a participle is a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective. As mentioned above, participles are verb forms that end in –ing or –ed, like “buzzing” or “roaring”, or “satisfied” or “soaked.” A participial phrase modifies a noun, like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers soon grew tired.” The phrase is talking about the activity of the person or thing closest to it, in this case, the hikers, so it’s correct.

Here’s an example of a dangling participle: “Exploring the trails, the birds chirped merrily.” It’s not the birds that are exploring the trails, so it needs to be changed to something like “Exploring the trails, the hikers heard birds chirping around them.” Or “As they explored the trails, the hikers...”

A few more examples of dangling participles:

Wrong:
Dodging the traffic, his cell phone got dropped on the street.

It’s not the cell phone that’s dodging the traffic, so it needs to be:

Right:
Dodging the traffic, he dropped his cell phone on the street.
Or: As he dodged traffic, he dropped his cell phone.

Wrong:
Gazing out the window, the willow tree swayed in the breeze.

This sentence implies it’s the willow tree that’s gazing out the window. It would need to be changed to something like:

Gazing out the window, she saw the willow tree swaying in the breeze.
Or: As she gazed out the window, she saw...

~ Misplaced modifiers are a mistake.

Also, watch where you put your descriptive phrases in sentences, as they modify the words closest to them. For example,

Tall and rugged, the teenage girl gazed at the basketball star in admiration.

As it is phrased here, the “tall and rugged” refers to the teenage girl, when it’s supposed to be describing the basketball star. It should be rephrased to something like:

The teenage girl gazed at the tall, rugged basketball star in admiration.

Similarly with:

Tired and dirty, the lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past at the end of the long day.

It’s not the lady of the house who’s tired and dirty, so this sentence needs fixing.

The lady of the house watched the tired, dirty farm workers trudge past...

Wrong:
Slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles, the customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts.

It’s not the customers who are slathered in icing with sprinkles! This should be changed to something like,
The customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles.

And you wouldn’t want to write, “Soaked to the skin, she dried off the kids when they came in from the rain.” Unless the mom is soaked to the skin, too!

Readers and writers - have you seen or accidentally created some awkward sentences involving misuse of participles? Care to share any humorous ones?

I provide lots of tips, with examples, of these and all kinds of other style gaffes to avoid in my award-winning editor’s guide to writing compelling stories, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION.


Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller (and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers), and her handy, clickable e-resources, Spelling on the Go – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips and Grammar on the Go, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com
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27 comments:

  1. Bad version : 'About a month ago, Dimitri discovered what he believes to be the resting place of the original immortals who gave birth to our two races in a cave in Egypt.'

    Gives the impression that the immortals gave birth to the races in the cave!

    Good version: 'About a month ago, Dimitri discovered a pair of caves in Egypt. He believes it was the resting place of the original immortals who gave birth to our two races.’

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    1. Good one, AD! Thanks for the great example of how syntax, or where the words are placed in a sentence, can affect meaning.

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  2. What can be hard to see are your own repeat sentence structures that become bad habits. It's important to create a natural cadence, without using the same series of compound sentences or overusing similar starting words or connecting words like "but." Each book can pose different repeat offenders too. It can be a constant battle.

    Good reminder post, Jodie.

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    1. So true, Jordan! But being aware of it is half the battle. Of course, I always remind writers to not worry about this kind of fine-tuning while they're trying to get the story down in the first place - just write with wild abandon!

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    2. Good advice. You are a wizard.

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  3. I *cough* of course, *cough* have never done such a *cough* thing. Nope, the fact that just last week a sharp-eyed editor friend pointed out a misplaced modifier in my draft query MEANS NOTHING.

    I do have to watch sentence structure. In first POV, it is always a struggle to not start everything with "I" and it is easy to fall into the participle trap. Great technical post.

    How about one on my other personal favorite that I have *cough* heard about others doing which is mixing tenses?

    Terri

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    1. Yes, the constant "I" in first person is a tough one, but can be mind-numbing if left, I think. It's one of the reasons I advise third-person for most novels. I know first-person, present tense is very popular for YA fiction.

      Mixing tenses is another sign of hasty writing, and one I haven't written a blog post about - thanks for the suggestion, Terri! :-)

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    2. Amen Jodie. Everyone thinks first person is easier to write. It's actually tougher because not only does your narrator have to be utterly compelling, you the writer have to find ways to avoid the "I" trap you mention. I've only writtten one first person and it about killed me.

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    3. Yes, and first-person has other pitfalls, too, Kris. A topic for another blog post!

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  4. I apologize. But you inspired me, Jodie.

    THE CASE OF THE GRUESOME GRAMMARIAN

    Sleeping soundly, I heard the phone ring, answering it.

    “We found another one,” Jonesy said.

    “One of Peti Parti’s?” I asked groggily.

    “Get over here right now. Corner of Strunk and White,” Jonesy said.

    “On my way,” I said, crawling out of bed and getting dressed.

    Driving to the address, I pulled the car over to the curb and got out. The last time Parti had come to town a bunch of his disciples had committed suicide. So many that the department had coined a new term for them. We knew the Hungarian hood was killing the naïve fools, but we didn’t know how.

    Hurrying up the sidewalk, I ran into the office building. Striding across the lobby, I jabbed the button for the elevator. Tapping my toes impatiently, I dashed into a free elevator that stopped. Riding up to the top floor, I got out and ran to the office.

    Collecting evidence, the forensics crew got out of my way. Walking up to Jonesy, I saw her hanging from a beam. Nudging me, Jonesy pointed out the knocked over chair beneath her.

    “Damn,” I said. “The last thing this city needs is another string of Dangling Participles.”


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    1. LOL! Thanks for the excellent example of how NOT to use participles, and the great ending, Eric! Gave me a good laugh!

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    2. My Alaskan Brother....You are a man after my own heart.

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    3. I figured you'd like that one, Basil.

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  5. My favorite exercise was always "find the dangling participles" in English class. :D Love it!

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    1. Yes, those can be pretty humorous, Diane. Thanks for dropping by and commenting! :-)

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  6. Jodie -

    Once again you have delivered fundamental (but easily confused) tools of craft clearly and effectively. I find your concise, simply stated guidelines/concepts extremely writer-friendly!

    As an example: "an –ing verb expresses an action that is still taking place when another action occurs." This easy-to-grasp notion can keep a writer on the straight and narrow.
    Thanks!

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  7. Jodie
    I fear I am a repeat offender on this count but usually I catch the problem in editing...well...most of the time...

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    1. Clare, that's what editors are for! :-)

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  8. Apparently, Jodie has not seen the tall and rugged teenage girl basketball stars up here in Montana.

    Not touching that "lady of the house" bit either. However, they do mow lawns and shovel snow up here, and we applaud them for it.

    I'm interested to see what Basil has to say about being slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles. Those long Alaskan winters and all...

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  9. Sorry Jim, couldn't join the party right off, had chocolate all over my hands.

    ...now...what were we talking about?

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  10. Jodie...stuff like this is why I like to pay folks like to do fix stuff like mine. ;-)

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    1. Hrm...autocorrect hit apparently hit me...

      I like to pay folks like you to fix stuff like mine.

      Yes....that's what my head said.

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    2. He got a bit o'choc-o-latte stuck between his keys dare.

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  11. Thanks, Jim and Basil, for the comic relief! :-)

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  12. Just in time! I caught a misplaced modifier in my son's essay today. Being a writer sure does come in handy for 8th grade homework :)

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    1. I hope your son was suitably impressed and appreciative, Julie - not like my sons at that age! :-)

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