Don’t let hanging participles pull your writing down

Hanging participles can be pretty funny – but they can also
undermine your message and dent your credibility. Here’s how to spot and rewrite them

A hang glider flying over mountains to illustrated a blog post on hanging participles

Photograph by Vincentiu Solomon

Recently, I read the following sentence in a review of a TV documentary: “Endorsed by the charity CALM, the rise in male suicides and depression is dealt an inside hand.” It’s unfortunate to say the least – CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is clearly not endorsing male suicide – quite the opposite. So how did this mistake come about? It’s an example of a very common grammatical error called a hanging participle (also known as a dangling modifier) in which the participle phrase* (in this case endorsed), is attached to the wrong subject (in this case rise). The sentence needs to be slightly reworded: ‘Endorsed by the charity CALM, this documentary deals an inside hand to the rise in male suicides and depression.’

Here are a few more examples:

1. ‘After being assured of a place on the team, the kit was put in his care.’

2. ‘Having said that, the guinea pig was still very restless.’

3. ‘Stepping off the bus, the house looked extraordinary.’

You can probably see the problem clearly now! In example (1), after being assured is attached to the kit; (2) having said that is attached to the guinea pig; (3) stepping is attached to the house. All these sentences begin with a participial clause but then continue with a subject to which the participle is not related. And if no subject precedes a participle, it appears to relate to the subject of the main clause.

Here’s a slightly different example:

‘I cleaned the house from top to bottom, followed by the car.’

Here, the participle followed is not attached to any noun in the sentence so it attaches itself to the car.

Once you have learned to spot these little beasties, it’s very easy to rewrite the sentence to marry up participle and subject, or ditch the participle altogether:

‘After he was assured of a place on the team, the kit was put in his care.’

‘Having said that, I should also mention that the guinea pig was very restless.’

‘As we stepped off the bus, we saw that the house looked extraordinary.’

‘I cleaned the house from top to bottom and then I cleaned the car.’

There is – of course! – an exception to the participle/subject relationship rule. Take this sentence:

‘Assuming that she’s read the note, the plan should go without a hitch.’

Here, the participial clause assuming that has an indefinite subject, ie, it is equivalent to saying ‘if one assumes that’ or ‘if people assume that’. Participial clauses with indefinite subjects (one, people) do not then need to qualify a subject elsewhere in the sentence because their subject is already implied.

Participles can be very useful in writing – just don’t keep them hanging!

*A participle is a word formed from a verb that participates in two grammatical functions: as a verb tense or an adjective. They usually end in ‘ing’, ‘ed’, or ‘en’. Used with an auxiliary verb, a participle implies ongoing action in the present or past (‘She was playing with the doll’/’She had played with the doll’). As adjectives they are used in the passive voice or to begin a clause (‘The doll had been played with’/’Playing with the doll, the girl was happy’). They are classed as either present participles (playing) or past participles (played) although these labels are misleading as present participles are not restricted to the expression of present time (She had been playing) and past participles are not restricted to the expression of past time (The doll will be played with later).