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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dangling Participles

Can furniture walk? Only in dreams...

GET READY:

Are there common grammar mistakes in your language that can make sentences that are funny? Do you know of any in English?

READ THIS:

We can think of verbs as coming in four types, like this:

1. see
2. saw
3. seen
4. seeing

Two of these are present, and two are past.

Two of these are simple, and two are participles.

They are:

1. present simple (or simple present): see, go, eat, talk
2. past simple (or simple past): saw, went, ate, talked
3. past participle: seen, gone, eaten, talked
4. present participle: seeing, going, eating, talking

It is possible to make mistakes with participles in a way that seems funny.

Do you know what's wrong with these sentences? (All use the present participle.)

1. Sitting in the closet, Joe found his old jacket.
2. Flying low, a herd of cattle could be seen.
3. Walking across the park, the coins fell through a hole in his pocket.
4. Quickly summoning an ambulance, the corpse was carried to a mortuary.
5. [Speaking of Gianni Versace]: Gunned down on the steps of his mansion, tourists come like pilgrims...

The problem is, the "participial phrase" (group of words with a participle) is supposed to modify a noun, but the noun is not mentioned in the right place, or is not mentioned at all.

Look at this example:

"Walking into the room, the furniture looked beautiful."

Who walked into the room? It sounds like the furniture walked into the room!

A better sentence would be "As I walked into the room, the furniture looked beautiful," or, "Walking into the room, I saw the beautiful furniture."

The first one changes the sentence completely; the last one shows the participial phrase modifying "I," which is correct.

Be careful of the "dangling participle"; it can accidentally be funny!

NOTES:

To "dangle" means to hang without support. Some women like to wear dangling earrings; it's fun to dangle a string in front of a kitten.

PRACTICE:

Look at the five sentences in the reading above. For each one, say why it's funny, and tell how to correct it.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION OR WRITING:

1. Try writing some "funny" sentences using dangling participles. Then tell why they're funny, and how to correct them. (This could be fun if you do it with a friend!)
2. Is there something like this in your language? Explain it in English.
3. What other funny English mistakes can you think of?

ANSWERS TO THE PRACTICE:

1. Sitting in the closet, Joe found his old jacket.
  • What’s funny: It sounds like Joe was sitting in the closet, but it was his jacket that was sitting there.
  • Correction: "Joe found his old jacket (which was) sitting in the closet."

2. Flying low, a herd of cattle could be seen.
  • What’s funny: It sounds like a herd of cattle was flying low, but it was the speaker (we guess) who was flying low.
  • Corrections: "Flying low, we could see a herd of cattle" or "We saw a herd of cattle while we were flying low."

3. Walking across the park, the coins fell through a hole in his pocket.
  • What’s funny: It sounds like the coins were walking across the park, but it was the person in whose pocket the coins were that was walking across the park.
  • Corrections: "As he was walking across the park, the coins fell through a hole in his pocket."

4. Quickly calling an ambulance, the corpse was carried to a mortuary.
  • What’s funny: It sounds like the corpse (a dead body) was calling the ambulance, but it was somebody else (not mentioned) who called it.
  • Corrections: "After someone quickly called an ambulance, the corpse was carried to a mortuary."

5. [Speaking of Gianni Versace]: Gunned down on the steps of his mansion, tourists come like pilgrims...
  • What’s funny: It sounds like the tourists were "gunned down" (shot); in fact, Versace was shot there, and the tourists visit the place "like pilgrims."
  • Corrections: Tourists come like pilgrims to the place where he was gunned down on the steps of his mansion."

This lesson is ©2012 by James Baquet. You may share this work freely. Teachers may use it in the classroom, as long as students are told the source (URL). You may not publish this material or sell it. Please write to me if you have any questions about "fair use."


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