Dear Megan's guide to dangling participles, misplaced modifiers and a tiny rant about why good grammar matters.
Greetings, Gentle Readers! This week’s not-made-up-by-me question comes to us from Sara in Phoenix. Sara writes:
Oh, sweet Sara—is there a difference between iOS and Android? “Star Wars” and “Star Trek?” The pina and the colada?
I’m going to assume the spark for this question came from our last Dear Megan, in which we explored the glories and shortcomings of the gerund. As discussed last time, a gerund is a noun made by adding ‘ing’ to a verb. For example:
“Eating ice cream is Dear Megan’s favorite thing to do.” Eating is the gerund (eating ice cream is the gerund phrase).
Enter the present participle, which also ends in ‘ing.’ Whereas a gerund functions as a noun, the present participle phrase describes another word in the sentence — and it does so in a verb-like fashion (stay with me, people):
“Eating ice cream with a fork, Dear Megan vowed to do dishes tomorrow.” Eating ice cream is the present participle phrase describing Dear Megan.
So what’s a dangling participle?
Even the most seasoned content writer dangles a participle now and again. When your present participle phrase has no proper subject in sight, it’s dangling. That’s bad. Take a look:
“Eating ice cream with a fork, the pistachios were delicious.”
The only subject in that sentence is “pistachios,” and they certainly weren’t eating ice cream with a fork. “Eating ice cream” is obviously meant to describe the narrator. To fix this, add the proper subject to the sentence:
“Eating ice cream with a fork, Dear Megan decided pistachios were delicious.”
There, that’s better.
Dangling and misplaced modifiers
Relatedly, other phrases that describe (modify) a noun can be dangling. These dangling nonparticipial modifiers are cleverly known as “dangling modifiers.” Here’s a real-life example from KSDK/Channel 5 in St. Louis:
The phrase “like most dogs” should be followed by the subject it describes—in this case, Seamus. The way it reads now, Mitt Romney is the dog in question (there’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m going to leave it alone).
Misplaced modifiers are a type of dangling modifier. Your descriptive phrase should modify the closest noun, and in cases where it’s misplaced, the results can be pretty funny. A famous example of this comes to us from Groucho Marx in the 1930 film “Animal Crackers:”
“In my pajamas” is a prepositional phrase that means to describe the speaker, but it’s “misplaced” and describes the elephant, instead. Silly. And wrong.
Dear Megan, why should we care?
Sigh. None of this is very sexy, is it? Dear Megan gets it. Participle this, dangle that, modify whatever, cha-cha-cha, am I right? Who cares if we know proper grammar or follow the rules. They know what I mean.
At this point, the standard argument looks something like this: The purpose of good grammar is clear, easy and enjoyable-to-read communication. It’s about readability, credibility and authority. It’s about career success. It’s about getting published. It’s about getting a date.
Now, Dear Megan is in favor of taking some creative liberties every now and then. Yes, breaking the rules is an art in and of itself, and for those times (read: poetry reading, Greenwich Village coffeehouse, circa 1969), you should embrace the practice. But as this Dear Megan post on comma splices points out, you risk coming off as ignorant and your writing weak if you attempt this and fail. For your Great American Novel, break every rule you wish; for straight content writing, use proper grammar.
Language matters. It is uniquely human, and advocating its proper use isn’t elitist; quite the opposite, language and grammar is the great equalizer, available to all. It’s the pedestal on which we place our most prized possessions — our thoughts and our words. Using it properly demonstrates your respect for the power of those words. For after Love, what is more powerful than words?