Mistaking a dangling participle, laughter was heard anyway.

Updated on 1 August 2012

If the title of this post doesn’t make any sense, it shouldn’t.

This is going somewhere, I promise! Bear with me.

Today, while scouring Tumblr and various forums for “The Best Picture on the Internet,” I came across the following:

I am certain that most people read to the last frame and, caught up in Johnny Carson’s joke, didn’t think twice about whether or not Dean Martin knew what a dangling participle is. Those who did think about it might assume (wrongly) that a dangling participle is when someone confuses ‘can’ and ‘may.’  A very small group of readers may have gotten so hung up on Mr. Martin’s lack of grammar knowledge that they completely missed Carson’s joke. If you are part of this last group, pat yourself on the back and relax, you probably already know what this post is about. For the rest of the world, read on.

Dean Martin doesn’t really know his grammar. 

While Dean was spot on with his correction of Carson’s question, “Can I?”, he should have stopped there. A dangling participle is neither the confusion of ‘can’ and ‘may’ nor is it something that you can cover with a long coat.

So, what is a dangling participle?

It’s really not as painful as it sounds.

Simply, a dangling participle is an adjective ending in -ing (present participle) that does not correspond logically to a noun in the sentence.

For clarity’s sake, let’s have a look at a couple sentences and identify the parts:

Julie walked excitedly to the diving board.  

(“Diving” is the present participle. It is an adjective ending in -ing that is modifying a clear noun, “board.”)

Walking around the pool, Julie heard someone call her name.

(“Walking” is the present participle. “Walking around the pool” is the participial phrase modifying the noun, “Julie”.  That Julie is the one “walking around the pool” makes logical sense. The participle here is not dangling. This is a correct sentence.)

Walking around the pool, a voice called her name.

(Again, “walking” is the present participle, and “walking around the pool” is the participial phrase modifying the subject. However, here the noun “voice” does not make sense. The “voice” is not the one “walking around the pool.” Since it is not clear who or what is “walking,” the participle is left “dangling.”)

Here are more examples of dangling participles:

Incorrect: Turning around quickly, the ground was wet.

(The participial phrase “turning around quickly” does not make sense modifying the noun “ground.”)

Correct: Turning around quickly, Julie slipped on the wet ground.

(The participial phrase “turning around quickly” makes sense modifying the noun “Julie,” who was “turning.”)

Incorrect: Falling into the pool, the splash attracted a lot of attention.

(It doesn’t make sense for the noun “splash” to be “falling into the pool.”)

Correct: Falling into the pool, Julie made a huge splash.

(Again, setting “Julie” as the noun being modified is more clear and logical.)

Fixing dangling participles

When you have a dangling participle in your writing, it’s likely that the intended and correct noun was used as the subject of the previous sentence or is “understood” by context.  However, when the noun following a participial phrase does not clearly link to what is happening in the sentence, it should be changed. Reword these sentences by clearly restating who or what is being modified by the participle.

Incorrect: Julie walked excitedly toward the diving board. Moving around the pool, a voice called her name.

CorrectJulie walked excitedly toward the diving board. Moving around the pool, she heard a voice call her name.

So, as you see, dangling modifiers don’t have anything to do with ‘can’ and ‘may,’ and Dean Martin didn’t really know anything about grammar. No one is perfect. Luckily, Johnny Carson did know a thing or two about comedy, and we all benefited from the gaffe.

Test your skills:

How would you correct the title of this post?

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