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Watch out! Your Participles May be Dangling

Many people are vaguely familiar with the English language grammatical faux paus “dangling participle” but what actually is a dangling participle? Let’s start with a pretty straightforward example:

“Born in Prague, her most famous novel is …”

Although this sentence seems okay at first glance, the problem is that the first part of the sentence (the subordinate clause ‘born in Prague’) does not have an explicit subject (who are we referring to here?). From the context we know it would be a person, but we don’t know who; additionally, the next few words we (‘her most famous novel’) are the subject of the sentence, but they clearly do not correspond to the preceding clause, because a novel cannot be born (unless one was writing figuratively). So, lo and behold, we have a verbal phrase (participle) “Born in Prague” dangling all by its lonesome!

Another way of describing this concept: a dangling participle (a verbal phrase) implies an actor but fails to correctly indicate who or what the actor is. Let’s review some examples of dangling participles from scientific manuscripts:

Problematic example: “Working quickly, the study was completed early by my research team.” [The participle appears to refer to “the study”; however, it is the research team that was working quickly.]

Better revision: “My research team worked quickly and completed the study early.

Or

The study was completed early because my research team worked quickly.”

Problematic example: “Based on our experience, educational interventions are needed to foster higher-quality end-of-life care.” [Are the educational interventions based on authors’ experience? No—it is the statement about the need for higher-quality end-of-life care that is based on the authors’ experience.]

Better revision: “We have found that educational interventions are needed to foster higher-quality end-of-life care.”

Or

“Experience has shown that educational interventions are needed to foster higher-quality end-of-life care.”

So, just to review, a participle is a form of a verb or verbal phrase. English has two types of participles: present participles and past participles. Present participles are easy to identify: they end in “ing.” Past participles of regular verbs end in “d” or “ed,” while those of irregular verbs may end in “t” or “en,” or may take a completely different form.

Participles play different roles in English: here we’re focusing on how they are used and misused in subordinate clauses, that is, clauses that depend on a main clause for their meaning. Here’s an example of a correct use of a participle in a subordinate clause:

“Looking around, I was the only one eating American food.”

The present participle (‘looking’) refers to the subject of the main clause (the pronoun ‘I’) – ‘I’ is the speaker or writer and the person who is both looking around and eating American food, so this sentence is clear and easy to understand. Hooray!


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