If you start a sentence with a participle, its unmentioned subject must be the same as the subject of the main verb
THE NOTORIETY OF “DANGLING” PARTICIPLES
Mainstream descriptions of English grammar are very prone, when presenting the uses of participles, to explain and warn against the so-called “dangling” use. Elsewhere in this blog, three other posts on participles make little mention of the problem (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun, 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing” and 101. Add-On Participles). Nevertheless, some attention to the problem of dangling participles seems desirable because there certainly does seem to be a tendency amongst many users of English, whether or not it is their mother tongue, to have them.
However, given the Guinlist policy of generally not repeating grammar points that are common in mainstream descriptions, the focus here is not so much on describing what correct and incorrect participle usage look like as on the various ways to reword a “dangling” construction. First, though, some description of dangling participles is necessary.
HOW PARTICIPLES CAN BE “DANGLING”
Participles are made from verbs. There are three kinds:
A. VERB + -ing (e.g. streaming, putting, taking)
B. VERB + -ed or irregular equivalent (e.g. pushed, seen, hit)
C. having + VERB + -ed or irregular equivalent (e.g. having known)
Full details of these are in the post 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun. Each needs a nearby noun to describe. This is because participles act like adjectives, which also go with nouns (see 6. Adjectives with No Noun 1: People-Naming). If an -ing word is used without describing a noun, it is probably not a participle but a gerund (see 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”). Participles can describe their noun in different ways. Compare how plants is described in each of the following:
(a) Growing PLANTS need plenty of water.
(b) Growing in poor soil, PLANTS will develop slowly.
(c) PLANTS growing in poor soil will develop slowly.
(d) PLANTS can be found growing in all types of climate.
(e) PLANTS use plenty of water, thus growing
More about the use in (a) can be read in the post 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”; for more about the use in (c), see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun; for more on (d) see 101. Add-On Participles; and for more on (e) see 32. Expressing Consequences. The use of “dangling” participles is likely to occur in sentences like (b), where the participle is at or near the start of the sentence, before the noun it describes but separated from it by a comma. Here is an example:
(f) * Working in a city, traffic congestion is likely (to be met).
This participle is “dangling” because the noun after the comma (traffic congestion) is not the expected one. It should represent the subject of the participle working – something like people, one or drivers (for a full explanation of subjects, see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices). Because of this expectation, (f) is strictly speaking nonsensical, as it suggests “traffic congestion works in a city”. Compare this with sentence (b), where the noun after the comma, plants, is the expected subject of the participle growing.
If traffic congestion in (f) were corrected to one, the sentence might become:
(g) Working in a city, one is likely to meet traffic congestion.
WAYS OF AVOIDING A DANGLING PARTICIPLE
Before considering this question, it is as well to appreciate that some participles that seem to be dangling are generally considered correct and hence do not need to be avoided. These include participles whose understood subject is the writer, such as speaking and putting it (see 183. Parenthetical Statements), and those that can be paraphrased by a preposition, like considering and ignoring (e.g. Considering/Ignoring the weather, the event was a success).
There are at least four different ways to reword a sentence containing an unwanted dangling participle. Two of them seem to be particularly useful.
1. Changing the subject of the main verb
This is the strategy illustrated in (g) above, where the problematic traffic congestion has been moved elsewhere in the sentence and replaced by the real subject of the participle, one. There will nearly always be an additional need to change the main verb in some way. The changed verb in (g) is the active form to meet instead of the original passive to be met. Active/passive changes are not always the solution, though: a completely different verb will often be needed. Here is another example. What noun might replace the only option, and how might the rest of the sentence be worded?
(h)* Surrounded on all sides, the only option was to surrender.
A likely subject of surrounded is the soldiers. Using this to start the second half of the sentence, we have to say something like … the soldiers could only surrender.
2. Replacing the participle with a conjunction construction
Sentence (f) can be rewritten with if or when:
(i) If one works in a city, traffic congestion is likely to be met.
Conjunctions, such as if, are usually followed by an ordinary, non-participle verb. Since such verbs need a visible subject (one above), the problem of the verb being linked with the wrong subject is less likely. Be aware, though, that conjunctions sometimes have a participle instead of an ordinary verb after them (see 36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition), and if they are used in this way (e.g. If working in a city …), the problem of the dangling participle remains a possibility.
Another useful conjunction for avoiding a dangling participle is because (or its synonyms as and since). It allows sentence (h) to be reworded Because the soldiers were … .
3. Replacing the participle with a preposition
What preposition could replace taking in the following example?
(j) ?Taking a train, the journey lasts just two hours.
You could use either by (by train) or on (on a train). In general, a preposition may be usable when the participle is of the -ing kind with a following object (a train above – see 8. Object-Dropping Errors for information about objects). If there is no object after an -ing participle – as after working in sentence (f) above – a preposition substitution is not possible. This is because the object of the participle is needed as the compulsory following noun (“object”) of the preposition.
4. Changing the participle into the passive voice
This strategy is again not always possible, but it works well with having participles followed by an object, like the following:
(k) *Having set up the equipment, the next step is to try it out.
The true subject of this participle is again a person, e.g. you or the technician. Making the participle passive, the sentence is written with the object at the start:
(l) The equipment having been set up, the next step is to try it out.
There is still no visible mention of the participle’s logical subject, but that is acceptable now because passive verbs allow it. The key point is that the participle having been set up cannot now be taken to have the next step as its subject, since it has been given its own clearly visible subject the equipment. Sentence (l) can also be written without having been. When this is done it seems usual to add with at the start, producing With the equipment set up, … (see 3. Multi-Use Words and 88. Exotic Grammar Structures 1).
Note that making the verb passive is not a solution in (h), where the dangling participle surrounded is already passive. However, that sentence could be corrected by simply adding a subject like the soldiers before the participle.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: REWORDING SENTENCES CONTAINING DANGLING PARTICIPLES
Here are some more examples of dangling participles. The recommendation is to try and correct them in all four of the ways suggested above. The first two ways are always possible. Answers are suggested below.
1. Visiting the Taj Mahal, a feeling of wonder took hold.
2. Being a close-knit society, networking is important.
3. Employed in a bookshop, there is a chance to become widely read.
4. Having eradicated illiteracy, everyone in the country benefits.
5. Starting with single words, complex linguistic knowledge can be slowly built up.
Suggested Answers (Others may be possible)
1(a) Visiting the Taj Mahal, they/the tourists were gripped by a feeling of wonder.
1(b) When they/the tourists visited the Taj Mahal, a feeling of wonder took hold.
1(c) At the Taj Mahal, a feeling of wonder took hold.
2(a) Being a close-knit society, they/the … consider networking important.
2(b) As they/the … are a close-knit society, networking is important.
3(a) Employed in a bookshop, one can become widely read.
3(b) If one is employed in a bookshop, there is a chance to become widely read.
4(a) Having eradicated illiteracy, the country brings benefits to everyone.
4(b) Since illiteracy has been eradicated, everyone in the country benefits.
4(c) Illiteracy having been eradicated (or With illiteracy eradicated), everyone in the country benefits.
5(a) Starting with single words, one can slowly build up complex linguistic knowledge.
5(b) If one starts with single words, complex linguistic knowledge can be slowly built up.
5(c) From single words, complex linguistic knowledge can be slowly built up.