Hanging participle

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Sometimes participles can lose touch with the noun the writer meant them to describe (“Swinging on the chandelier, the mother told her children to behave”), and the reader can read them as describing another noun than the one the writer meant to describe. Often the noun that the reader understands is inappropriate. It is more likely to have been the children than the mother who were swinging on the chandelier. The sentence should be rephrased as “The mother told her children off for swinging [or because they had swung] on the chandelier.”

This is an example of the hanging participle, also known as dangling, misrelated or unattached participles. In the example above, was it the mother or the children who were swinging on the chandelier? Sometimes a hanging participle can be unintentionally funny. At other times, it is simply bad writing – bad because it is unclear. Examples can be found everywhere. When a writer says “Being an internal publication, Richard should have known its contents”, we all know what he means. But that is not good enough for academic English. We should be precise. If we look at this example precisely, we can see that the writer seems to suggest that Richard is a publication. Obviously he isn’t. The writer should say, “As it was an internal publication, Richard should have known its contents.” Again, a report of a visit to an archaeological excavation said "Walking into the site, are the remains of two antechambers..." which is absurd - although we all know the writer meant that he was walking into the site, and he could see the remains of two antechambers. A journalist once wrote, when describing a dictator, "So perhaps he is nicer than his father, but as a representative of a regime with no freedom of speech and a secret police which routinely uses torture and execution without public trial I can’t help feeling that’s beside the point" - thus laying the writer open to the charge of being a representative of the unpleasant regime. Which is not what was meant

BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour (17th June 2005) gave the wonderful picture of a Russian soldier in 1916 who appeared to be enjoying unexpected pleasures: “Lying in his hospital bed … the Tsarina {= 'Queen' of Russia]…” To be fair, the whole quotation was “Lying in his hospital bed wounded the Tsarina came by.” The fuller quotation is a less vivid (and less indelicate) picture; but just as much of a dangling participle, and therefore to be condemned. The fact that this was spoken English may excuse it; but if you are writing academic English, you are not speaking. Better: “As he was lying wounded on his hospital bed, the Tsarina came by.”

Even famous writers can dangle participles. Byron said, in relation to the death of Don Jose, the father of his hero Don Juan, "Dying intestate, Juan was sole heir" (I, 37). He meant that the father had died; Juan was the heir. That is not what he wrote.

Avoid letting your participles dangle.

The hanging participle is a special form of the Dangling phrase.