The first time I got a round of really thorough, professional edits back on a manuscript, I just about had a heart attack. Had the track changes feature on Word gone rogue? Had my screen started bleeding red? Seriously, I’d had so many friends look over my work, and they’d said it was clean. Hell, the editor who had sent me this bloodbath of corrections said my manuscript was relatively clean.
How could there possibly be so many problems?
Perhaps I should back up a couple of steps. I am largely a self-taught writer. I got a good basic education in the literary arts in high school, and I even took a couple of gen-ed English classes in college. But I was never really, formally taught to write. I’m lucky to have a pretty good ear for the English language and a solid fundamental understanding of grammar and spelling, so I was able to muddle through. But I did not go into this first round of edits with the vocabulary to even begin to make sense of some of the things my editor was telling me.
Case in point: The Dangling Modifier. English majors and other people who survived even a rudimentary composition class may better know this as the Dangling Participle.
And wow. Did I ever have a lot of them in that first manuscript.
A participial phrase (look at me with the fancy words!) is one that is sort of an add-on to a sentence that helps describe what’s going on the main body of the sentence. I tend to think of them as ‘those –ing phrases’. You know, the ones you use to break up your pattern of having every damn sentence start with ‘noun verb blah blah blah’?
Taking a sip of her wine, she tried to come up with a blog topic for the day.
Cringing in horror, she scrolled through the list of corrections her editor had left for her.
She pet her cat, imagining the comfort it would provide her when she inevitably ended up old and bitter and alone.
In each of these examples, the part in bold is the participial phrase.
The key to keeping said participial phrase firmly attached to your sentence (ie, not dangling) is to make sure that it describes the subject of the sentence. In each of the cases above, the participial phrase describes ‘she’. She takes the sip of wine, she cringes in horror, she imagines being a crazy old cat lady.
If the subject of the sentence and the acting person in the participial phrase don’t match, that’s when you end up with those unsightly dangly bits that will cause your editor to despair.
Here are some sentences that have gone horribly wrong:
Rippling with muscles, I drooled over his phenomenal physique.
Here, ‘I’ is the subject of the sentence; presumably, ‘he’ is rippling with muscles. I can fix it by changing it to ‘His body rippled with muscles, and I drooled over his phenomenal physique.’ Or ‘Rippling with muscles, his physique was positively drool-worthy.’ See? All you have to do is make sure both parts match, or that both parts have their own explicitly stated subject.
Staring at my unfinished manuscript, the cursor blinked at me with mocking disdain.
In this case, the cursor is the subject of the sentence, but I am the one staring in despair at my WIP. To correct the issue, switch up one or the other. ‘Staring at my unfinished manuscript, I imagined my cursor blinked at me with mocking disdain.’ Or insert a subject into the first part of the sentence. ‘As I stared at my unfinished manuscript, the cursor blinked at me with mocking disdain.’
Be warned, though, that once you spot this kind of error, it’s impossible to un-see it. You’ll notice yourself making the same mistake over and over, and you’ll pain-stakingly fix each one, hanging your head in shame every time you find one.
Until some far-off, distant day, you’ll try to write an article about the evils of the dangling modifier, and you’ll try to come up with some examples. And much to your bewilderment, you’ll be unable to remember how to write a modifier incorrectly.
And then you’ll know you’ve finally gotten the damn thing down.