Eradicating the Dangling Participle from Your Writing

We have all at one time or another, committed the unpardonable error of infusing our written syntax with that cankerous infestation, the dangler. It is a slight variation on the theme of the simple sentence and adds a bit of flourish to its mundanity, qualifying and enhancing your statement in one way or another, adverbially. It may reflect some sort of atavistic memory of heavy inflection, since every dangler would be grammatical if it could be morphologically marked to agree with its referent in the main clause. This is what I mean:

         I-A *Being very tired, the alarm failed to disturb Morton's sleep.

Of course, "being very tired" does not relate grammatically to the rest of the sentence. We know what the hypothetical speaker is trying to say. WHO was tired? Morton. But according to the logic of English grammar, as we have it we are actually reading that the alarm clock was tired [This does happen, especially when you purchase your alarm clocks at Woolworth's, even when they bear the impressive moniker of Westclox" or Baby BenT~mbittered bargain hunters refer to this "tired alarm clock" phenomenon, e.g., as planned obsolescence]. This sentence as is could be grammatical, e.g., in Latin or Sanskrit or Greek: the "being very tired" would be a present participle in the genitive (viz., possessive) case, in agreement with "Morton's." That is the advantage of inflection. Theoretically, in any of those ancient languages, word order was of far less importance than such morphological markers, because they marked meaning unmistakably. However, there are not too many ways we could change the order of the above sentence. According to Ramsey Fowler, "what all dangling modifiers share is the lack of an expressed subject." That is the root of the evil. The minute you exhume the latent referent of the dangling phrase, the sentence starts to become acceptable.

(*) Asterisks here indicate an ungrammatical sentence used for didactic purposes only. Granted, the minute anything appears in print it is likely to ingrain itself into your mind for better or for worse, so· please destroy this article after reading it, to ward off its negative potential. The following examples are adapted from Fowler, H. Ramsey, Little, Brown Handbook [not to be confused with Fowler, Francis George, Modern English Usage (which to my knowledge does not address this issue, though one would expect him to; I don't know whether these two Fowlers are related, though both have performed valuable services for the American public most people would want to have nothing to do with)], 2d ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983), at which time it had already been through five printings, much to the chagrin of countless English composition classes at the freshman level on untold college campuses throughout the country.

         l-B viz.: *Morton's being very tired, the alarm failed to disturb Morton's sleep.

Better, but still no smoking materials. We just do not generate sentences like this, even when we are not the most strictly grammatical speakers one could ever meet. We all of us have discovered the value of pronouns and pronominal adjectives. How do we edit from here?

         l-C Morton's being very tired, the alarm failed to disturb his sleep.

         Better yet, but still not any English anyone has ever spoken to me. Grammatical in the strictest sense, but extremely awkward. In Latin we would have what they call an ablative absolute; in English we have an awkward adverbial clause. If we expand even more (whence cometh that pressure to compress expression-journalism? the revolt against Victorian expansiveness or an atavistic memory of the old days of inflection-Hear! Hear!)

         1-D Since Morton was very tired, the alarm failed to disturb his sleep.

There is your grammatical sentence. R. Fowler goes on to explain that dangling modifiers are MEANT to modify the subject noun of the following clause, but they don't. That is why they are called danglers. We can generate a sentence with an initial participle that modifies the subject of the main clause, to recover the effect the writer of the initial ungrammatical sentence was striving for:

         I-E Being very tired, Morton was not awakened when his alarm clock went off.

This is not the most elegant sentence ever generated. It is considered stylistically undesirable, for instance, to use the rather bland, neutral participle being in our formal prose composition.

         l-F Having succumbed to exhaustion in an amorphous heap the night before, and bound to awaken with various pulled muscles as a result, the hapless Morton might as well have been a mountain of cement as even a semi-sentient human being that morning when the alarm clock pitifully and faithfully sounded to his functionally deaf ears.

There we have it for the literary-minded, or those inclined toward picturesque verbosity.

We could continue to generate variations on the above; however, since our alleged theme is not stylistics per se, but understanding danglers and therefore eliminating them from the pathology of our diction, we continue with other examples from Mr. Fowler's explanation.

         2-A *On rising, coffee was essential to waken Morton.

Our ancient inflected languages would have participle and Morton in the accusative this time, "on rising" expressed again by a present participle. Elegant. Let us use Fowler's two guidelines again: what is the implied subject of the dangling phrase? Morton. But once again Morton has not appeared as subject of the main clause.

         2B *When Morton woke up each day, coffee was essential to awaken Morton.

         2C When Morton woke up each day, coffee was essential to awaken him.

Better, but wordy; re-placing Morton as subject of the main clause, we have

         2-D * When Morton woke up each day, Morton required coffee to wake up.

         2-E When he woke up each day, Morton had to have a cup of coffee to get him going.

Trim this down to

         2-F Coffee was essential to waken Morton each day.

Because anyone employed as an editor had better not let the penultimate sentence (2-E) stand in published prose, unless one is a chatty columnist trying to fill up space in the morning paper, vqs.

To retain your modifier grammatically:

         2-G On rising, Morton had to drink a cup of coffee to wake up to the level of alertness necessary to tackle a day at the office, or so he thought.

Once again, stylistics are debatable, but we must proceed to the next category, viz.:

         3-A *Until completely awake, work was impossible.

The first phrase does not modify the subject of the main clause. The adjective awake implies a sentient being, probably human. We can therefore opt to retain this somewhat elliptical initial phrase and rewrite to

         3-B Until completely awake, he could not work.

Neither can anyone, for that matter. But we now have acquired agreement between the modifier and the subject of the main clause. Btw, we would have to edit example 3-A even in an ancient language to: *Until completely awake, work was impossible for Morton. Then the participle/adjective awake (not to belabor a point) would appear in the dative case, to agree with the dative *Mortano, vqs. (-o being your masculine singular dative, eclensional ending in classical Latin).

Or, to opt for the main clause as was, we dispense with the compression of the modifying clause and generate something like

         3-C Until Morton was completely awake, work was impossible.

When is work possible? That may be an existential question or a strictly pragmatic one, but again it cannot detain us.

In the context of the above examples, in case any readers are impressed with the efficiency of inflection and wonder where it went in English (have you tried learning German or Russian lately"), a few shy indications may be hinting at its return, viz., various responses to the issue of the genderless pronoun. Exhuming the epicene their out of the catacombs of our Old and Middle English past (per OED), has met with resistance, requiring more linguistic accuracy: inflection, in other words. "He/she" etc. is considered awkward, and "shim/sher" met an early demise, because we like to draw neologisms out of tradition rather than ingenuity. So the search for the genderless epicene goes on when it is .not ignored by traditionalists (I have not taken a census on this but imagine that it such gender bias in language persists at least 50 percent of the time, in my experience). We have no Academie, but certainly an educated public whose active participation in the necessary evolution of linguistic forms is asserting itself and demanding: inflection.

Your comments, unless scathingly hostile, are most welcome.