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A dangling participle is a specific instance of a dangling modifier. It involves a participle that is positioned in a sentence in such a way that it modifies an unintended part of the sentence. Simply put, the writer intends for the participle to modify one part of the sentence, but because of where the writer places the participle, it actually modifies another part of the sentence or confuses readers as to which part it is supposed to modify. A dangling participle can be an individual participle or a participle phrase. Usually, grammar experts advise writers to rewrite sentences with dangling participles, but depending on factors like the context surrounding the sentence, a rewrite might not be necessary.
In English grammar, participles are verbs that act as adjectives. Once they begin to behave as adjectives, these verbs become participles. Usually, verbs acting as adjectives take on an “-ing” ending. Examples of verbs acting as participles include walking, swimming, and shopping. These words are all verbs, but they can also be used to modify nouns in a sentence, such as “walking track,” “swimming pool,” and “shopping mall.”
A participle becomes a dangling participle when a writer places it in the wrong location within a sentence. Placing the participle in the wrong location causes it to modify an unintended part of the sentence. Often, that location is at the beginning of a sentence, but this is not a rule.
Usually, the participle or participle phrase is supposed to modify the subject within the neighboring phrase. For example, within the sentence “Walking through the dark hallway, the shadows follow me,” the participle phrase is “walking through the dark hallway.” The subject of the following phrase is “the shadows.” Yet, the shadows are not walking through the hallway, so even though the participle is modifying the subject, it is modifying the wrong part of the sentence. Rewriting the sentence to “Walking through the dark hallway, I sense the shadows following me” changes the subject to “I” and allows the participle phrase to modify the correct part of the sentence.
A dangling participle can cause confusion and even completely alter the meaning of a sentence. Generally, grammarians advise against using a dangling participle. Usually, writers work to avoid them, and will rewrite their sentences when they, or their editors, find them.
Occasionally, an instance will arise when the rewritten sentence makes less sense, or becomes awkward, once the dangling participle is removed. Such an instance can arise in both formal and informal writing and speaking, and especially during fiction pieces when rewriting the sentence would make it sound more formal than the narrator or a character would normally speak. Typically, a writer and his editor will determine which form of the participle, correct or dangling, fits best with the overall context.