I don’t want to get too personal, but how do you feel about your dangling participles? Do you reel back in horror at the sight of them? Feel there’s a time and place for them if used wisely? Or wonder what on earth I am talking about?
If you are in the last group, a dangling participle occurs when a clause in a sentence relates not to the noun or pronoun that follows it, but to one in a previous clause. As in:
‘Mary thought Mr Brown was a misogynist and she vowed she would never work for him; then again, being a woman, he probably wouldn’t employ her anyway.’
Sometimes a dangling participle will cause confusion, but few readers of the above sentence would assume that Mr Brown is female. Being a woman obviously refers to Mary.
Many style guides disapprove of the use of dangling participles. John Humphreys, in Lost for Words calls their use a ‘hanging offence’ (pun, presumably, intended) because they are ugly and can mislead the reader.
But who could improve on Shakespeare’s phrasing when the ghost in Hamlet tells his son that:
“Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me”?
No words are wasted, and everybody knows it is Hamlet senior who was sleeping in the orchard, not the serpent.
Dangling participles are not necessarily good or bad. The only test for their use is that, when the reader comes to the end of the sentence, is the meaning clear? On the evidence above, I would say that Shakespeare definitely passes.
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