Dangling Participle: Grammatical Error Or Bad Writing Style?

Dec 12, 2011 by

BY KATERYNA SHILOVA (Stanford Continuing Studies Program, “The Glamour of Grammar”) 
The idea to research the subject of a dangling participle came to me after an unsuccessful attempt to amuse my English-speaking husband with the well-known (in Russia) joke from Chekhov’s short story “The Complaints Book”, specifically one purported entry in the railroad complaints book:
– “Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off”[i].
My listener did not find the phrase funny or confusing. When I insisted there are two possible meanings  (one of them humorous) – he did not agree.  I thought then that the problem might be more apparent to a reader rather then listener. Upon reading the passage himself, my interlocutor felt that the humorous interpretation (the rider’s hat was apparently admiring the scenery) was too contrived to present itself to a reader. Two other people (one was a teacher of English) to whom I subsequently tried to explain the problem with the passage had similar reactions.
Yet in the modern English language there exists an explicit prescriptive rule against such use of a participle (commonly called dangling participle). The online Oxford English Dictionaries describes it as “a participle intended to modify a noun that is not actually present in the text”[ii]. The example given by the Oxford English Dictionaries to demonstrate the dangling participle is, ironically, very similar to the phrase from “The Book Of Complaints“:
-“Arriving at the station, the sun came out.
According to Merriam-Webster’s “Dictionary of English Usage” the rule declaring dangling participle a grammatical error was introduced in the 19th century[iii] – at the same approximate time when many arbitrary prescriptive grammatical rules (such as the rule concerning split infinitive) were established. The typical reasoning behind the rule that one can find in many grammar books is that dangling participles are “illogical”, “ambiguous” or “confusing”, with examples such as:
– After winning the Peloponnesian war, Athens was ruled briefly by the Spartans.
– After being whipped fiercely, the cook fried the egg.
– Considering the Assyrians’ brutal policies toward foreigners, their catastrophic fall in 612 BCE comes as no surprise.[iv]
Yet despite the claimed confusion, the same sources that decry the use of the dangling participle, admit that it’s use is very widespread amongst “lay people” and “men of letters” alike, including such figures as Jane Austen, Alexandetr Pope, Arthur Miller, and even Shakespear:
– Sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me. (Hamlet)
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage summarases the subject of dangling modifier thus:
-“Dangling modifiers are common, old and well-established in English literature.”
Considering all of the above, I found myself questioning the rule. Just how ambiguous a sentence, guilty of employing a dangling participle, really is? Do English speakers recognize such a sentence as grammatically incorrect?
In order to get answer this question, I decided to conduct a little experiment, which is described below:
Five sentences, all but one of which (# 4)[1] containing a dangling participle:
1.      After winning the Peloponnesian war, Athens was ruled briefly by the Spartans.
2.      After being whipped fiercely, the cook fried the egg.
3.      Considering the Assyrians’ brutal policies toward foreigners, their catastrophic fall in 612 BCE comes as no surprise.
4.      Barring bad weather, we plan to go to the beach tomorrow.
5.      Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off.
First four sentences were borrowed from the Utah State University college writing guide website[v]. The last sentence is the aforementioned Chekhov’s quote.
Each sentence was presented on the separate piece of paper.
16 college educated English speakers, of them 2 non-native, 5 female and 11 male.
Each subject first listened to a given sentence and evaluated the clarity and grammaticality of the sentence. After that he/she read the sentence from the sheet of paper and assessed the same points again. This process was repeated for all sentences in the study. The participants were interviewed one-on-one and had no the knowledge of other subject’s opinion or answers. When all the sentences were evaluated, if the subject found some but not all sentences with dangling participle ambiguous or/and erroneous, he/she was asked to contrast the sentences.
The results of the experiment are presented in the table below.
The left column represents numbered sentences, while columns on the right lists the number of people who found a given sentence ambiguous or/ and ungrammatical.
Sentence         Found             Found             Found             Found

Number         ambiguity       error               ambiguity       error

                        After               after                after                after
      #1                 2                       0                       6                      0
     # 2                 10                     0                       12                    0
      #3                  0                      0                       0                      0
      #4                  0                      0                       0                      0
     # 5                 4                       0                       3                      0
This table presents interesting results:
The majority of the participants found only one sentence ambiguous – #2. Sentence #2 was an intentionally contrived, “unreal” phrase. When asked why this sentence was found ambiguous as opposed to question #5, the participants gave following answers:
“It’s funny”  – 3 people
“It’s actually possible for the cook to be whipped, but not for the hat to look out the window” – 9 people.
It might be concluded that the rate of identifying sentence #2 as ambiguous was the highest because it’s potential comical effect was augmented by the lexical ambiguity of the verb “whipped”. People seemed to focus on it rather then on the structural ambiguity of the dangling participle.
The rest of the sentences were found to be pretty clear by most of the participants. The somewhat elevated number of perceived ambiguity in sentence #1 after reading  (but not after listening) might be due to 2 reasons:
1.      Use of a passive voice. The passive voice is usually discouraged in academic writing and the use of it could have been a trigger to examine the sentence more thoroughly.
2.      The voice cues (cadence, intonation) may aid understanding when people are listening.
It’s worth noting that none of the subjects deemed any sentences erroneous.
We can suppose from this admittedly limited research that the reasoning behind the prescriptive rule declaring any dangling participle a grammatical error must be flawed. Only a few actual phrases featuring dangling participle are confusing or ambiguous. But even for those cases, does their ambiguity automatically render them ungrammatical? In general, does grammatical equal comprehensible or unambiguous? The answer is, most emphatically, “no”.  In fact, the very possibility of a world play and puns is due to perfectly “legal” lexical or structural ambiguity as demonstrated by the following comical exchange from Jack London’s novel:
– “My father, sir, your grandfather, old Isaac Bellew, killed a man with a blow of his fist when he was sixty-nine years old. “The man?” “No, your–you graceless scamp!”[vi]
(Either Isaac Bellew was sixty-nine years old when he killed a man, or Isaac Bellew killed a sixty-nine year old man.)
Fowler’s Modern English Usage in the article on linguistic ambiguity lists following examples, both grammatically correct:
– We did not go to the shops because we were expecting visitors. (Either we did not go out at all, or we did go out although not because we were expecting visitors).
– If the children don’t like their toys, get rid of them (either get rid of toys, or children).[vii]
So far we’ve demonstrated that:
1)                 The use of the dangling participle is very widespread.
2)                 Most cases of dangling participle do not seem ambiguous to the English speakers.
3)                 The ambiguity of a sentence does not render it ungrammatical.
Should then the use of the dangling participle be considered a grammatical mistake or a question of style? Is it one of the “real” grammatical rules that are learned at a very young age and are internalized, or is it just an artificial prescriptive rule that is imposed on the speakers by the higher language authority (akin to the rule against multiple negative)?
I would like to answer these questions and to conclude this paper by quoting
Geoffrey K. Pullum, the head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and a co-author of “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language”:
” I don’t regard danglers as grammatical mistakes; that is, I think the syntax of English does not block them. … A dangler is an error in a domain that I have compared (for want of a better way to put it) to courtesy or manners. I regard danglers as minor offenses against communicational etiquette, but not against grammar.[viii]

[1] While “barring” in sentence #4 seems to be a dangling participle, in reality it is an absolute clause and is considered grammatical.

[i] The Complaints Book, Chekhov, The Comic Stories, translated from Russian by Harvey Pitcher isbn 1- 56663-242-0.
[iii] Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage by Merriam-Webster (Hardcover – 27 Apr 1995), page 314.
[vi]  London, Jack (2004-05-01). Smoke Bellew (p. 6), Public Domain Books, Kindle Edition.
[vii]Oxford Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert Allen, Oxford University Press.
[viii] Geoffrey K. Pullum’, “Language Log” blog.

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  • John Cowan

    Well done! There isn't enough experimental linguistics in this world.

  • Prescriptivist Dog

    In Chrome, the table isn't formatted properly. It looks like you have five column headings but only three columns. I can figure out what's going on, though.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @Prescriptivist Dog: Sorry about the technical issues: it proved to be more difficult than I anticipated to include various graphic elements in these posts. Hopefully, the new and improved version of this blog, coming in early January, will be easier to handle and more reader-friendly!

  • RuTHaL

    It is mostly about style rather than grammar.
    It is not viewed as an error because most people understand the internal message and not the form of the sentence as a whole grammatical construction. As you said, it is about the subject … which is misplaced …