May 15, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Dangling participles and prepositions

Posted in dangling modifier, dangling participles, dangling prepositions at 8:16 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Dangling Participles

A participle (present participle) is a verb ending in “ing” that is usually used as an adjective but is sometimes used as a noun. The present participle modifies a noun. Participles are fine when they are close to the noun they are modifying; unfortunately, participles are notoriously fickle and will modify whatever noun they happen to be near, often leading to misunderstanding, nonsensical writing, and laughter. We call those participle clauses that wantonly modify the incorrect but nearest noun, “dangling participles.”

“Flitting gaily from flower to flower, the soldier watched the bee.”

Well, not in the U.S. Army, he doesn’t. It should really be the bee, not the soldier, that is flitting gaily. The soldier watched the bee flitting gaily from flower to flower.

“We sat on the field watching the cows playing scrabble and drinking lemonade.”

Now if this was in Gary Larson’s The Far Side, I’d buy this, but most others do not imagine cows drinking lemonade and playing scrabble. While watching the cows, we sat on the field playing scrabble and drinking lemonade. And if you don’t get the reference to Gary Larson’s The Far Side, check it out.

“Red from shrieking with laughter, the proposal was read by the reviewer.”

While reviewers could conceivably be shrieking with laughter (not from reading one of our proposals, of course), proposals can not. The proposal was read by the reviewer, red from shrieking with laughter.

Enough said? While often amusing, dangling participles are never correct, so watch where that capricious roaming participle sits.

Tip 2: Dangling Prepositions

A reader writes: “I would love to see a column on dangling prepositions – I admit to being an offender in this area.”

We touched on this briefly back in February (this is our 20th edition of WLUT, by the way) but since this was requested, I think it’s worth mentioning again.

A dangling preposition is a preposition that is the last word of a sentence or clause. “What are you thinking about?” According to true purists, one should never end a sentence or a clause with a preposition. “About what are you thinking?” While I tend to be pretty traditional about most grammar issues, about this I say hooey! We end sentences with prepositions in speech all of the time. And sometimes avoiding using the preposition at the end makes the sentence very awkward.

I was checking references on the web and ran into one which disagrees with my thinking. The examples used to show how to avoid using dangling prepositions, instead, prove my point.

From the University of Texas website:

“Prepositions cannot come at the end of a sentence or clause.

Do not write:

The idea I am thinking of is particularly good.

Instead write:
The idea of which I am thinking is particularly good.

Do not write:

That is behavior I simply cannot deal with.

Instead write:
That is behavior with which I simply cannot deal.”

Nuts. The so-called correct version is much more clumsy that the “incorrect” version.

As a reminder this is what I wrote back in February:

About ending a sentence with a preposition: Forget about it. If ending a sentence with a preposition is more graceful than not, go ahead and do it. Clarity, simplicity, and grace are what good writing is about. When I checked, both Columbia and Chicago style manuals agreed, so I am not leading you astray. We all know the famous Winston Churchill line about ending a sentence with a preposition: That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” So relax, put you feet up and stop worrying about that pesky preposition.

WAIT! WAIT! WAIT! Don’t go away yet. There is one glaring EXCEPTION.

Never, ever end a sentence with “at.” Not ever, NEVER.

“Where is she at?”

“Where is the gym at?”

The good news is that you don’t have to fuss about trying to put it in the middle of the sentence. Just lop that bad boy off, and throw it away.

“Where is she?”

“Where is the gym?”




  1. adam said,

    Thanks. Is n’AT still okay to use?

    “She went downtown to the store, n’at,” said the Pittsburgh Pirate.

  2. alan said,

    An exception to every rule:

    Come on, come on, let me show you where it’s at
    The name of the place is I like it like that

  3. Nick said,

    What about this?

    “The juror’s mind wandered because he had nothing to look at.”

  4. KO said,

    While I agree that “That is behavior with which I simply cannot deal” is awkward, what is wrong with “I simply cannot deal with that behavior”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      That would be fine as well.

    • HP said,

      In isolation, there is nothing wrong with the alternative. In context, the subtle change of subject from ‘that behaviour’ to ‘I’ could distort the intended message.

  5. DaddyD said,

    Historical note … the idea that English sentences shouldn’t end with a preposition is just a bit over 100 years old. It is an artificial construct based on the fact that a Latin sentence can’t end in a preposition.

    • PeterP said,

      Even Fowler and Strunk & White had no problems with ending sentences with prepositions. Fowler, who is pretty much a prescriptivist grammarian’s grammarian, called the whole business a “superstition” as far back as 1908, in “The King’s English.”

      I wonder who came up with UT’s style guide (assuming the quoted text is from a UT style guide.) I can’t think of any major or respected style manual in the last 100 years who has problems with this construction. Who is perpetuating this nonsense?

  6. Ken said,

    I just came across this blog entry. I disagree with your (and others’) opinion that dangling prepositions are fine. The fact that something has come into common usage does not mean it is usage to which we should relent. If that is the case, woe to the coming generation learning their native tongue from a generation raised on rap and text messaging. LOL (Yes, that was a joke, although there is nothing at all amusing about that prospect.)

    I have come to the realization that the rule against dangling prepositions, like most rules of grammar, is useful because it begets clarity. You claim that un-dangling your prepositions sounds odd. To the contrary, I found that, if you train yourself to pay attention for a couple of weeks, you will find yourself easily constructing sentences properly. You soon notice when folks leave their prepositions flapping in the wind. Frankly, it begins to sound a bit crude. Only occasionally will you find a sentence in which the dangling prepostion cannot be easily remedied. In those instances, I usually find the thought is more clearly expressed with a completely restructured sentence.

    I respectfull request you re-consider your position.

    P.S. I strongly agree with your comments on not placing “at” at the end of “where” questions. My mother’s standard answer to any question like “Where are you at?” is “Behind the ‘at.'”

    • yziquel said,

      “The fact that something has come into common usage does not mean it is usage to which we should relent.”

      That’s plain wrong.

      English essentially is a germanic language, and dangling prepositions are pretty much consistent with that heritage. The reality is that dangling prepositions have been in common usage for likely a few milleniums, and that the anti-dangling rule is a 100-year old latinist grammar nazi delirium.

      Being french, I find that rather amusing to be in the position of defending english linguistic tradition…

      • dlseltzer said,

        Thanks for your comment, but I think you misunderstood what I said. I am actually in agreement with you, and that is what the blog entry says. Again, thanks for reading.

      • yziquel said,

        I was replying to Ken.

      • dlseltzer said,

        Oh. Gotcha!

    • My mom (an English professor) always answered, “On the other side of at!” I agree, all other prepositions work okay at the end of a sentence but using at is redundant. I hear way too many preachers and professionals making this mistake and it makes me cringe every time.

  7. […] phrases work, let’s take a look at the dangling modifier. I found a great example of this on Weekly Language Usage Weblog. They give us the sentence, “Flitting gaily from flower to flower, the soldier watched the […]

  8. Anonymous said,

    Sister Mary Bustyourknuckles will chase you while wielding her ruler!


    How can you condone such a grammatical Faux Pas?. We are ranked no higher than 30th worldwide in literacy. Now, let’s add to that purposefully misusing our language. I am not perfect with my grammar, but Sister Mary Bustyourknuckles did her job well… at least when it comes to dangling things at the end of a sentence.

    As of today, I am changing ‘Larry’s Law of Prepositions’, which, till this moment, was, ‘If the preposition is necessary for the thought, it’s OK to end the sentence with it’. i.e. Who are you going with.’ The ‘with’ is necessary too express the thought. NOT ANY MORE….

    Where are you going…to!

    Where is it… A..A.A.
    No! I cannot even write it as an example!
    There is only one sentence that may end with the word ‘at’.
    I just wrote it!

    As I type this, the TV is tuned to Sunday football. Please, networks, hire Sister Mary BYK to teach these announcers a smidgeon of ‘propah’ grammar!

    Now.. Shall we talk about ‘Netspeak’ and no more Caps…anywhere in a sentence?

  9. Dale said,

    Your example of “at” as an exception not allowed as a dangling preposition is the exact proof that prepositions should not be dangled. Sentence structure rules are content agnostic. Just because you find one speech pattern easy and the other offensive does not mean that one is acceptable and the other not.

    To avoid, “What are you thinking about?” I don’t have to say, “About what are you thinking?” I simply say, “What are you thinking?” Leave the about out.

    Here is the sentence, from an email I just received, that sent me scurrying for documentation on dangling prepositions:

    “Please speak to Glen whom I have just discussed this with.”


    Never dangle your preposition in public.

    • Anonymous said,

      Or you could fill in the phrase. For instance, “What are you thinking about ‘my proposal’; or “dinner this evening”; or ‘the crisis in Syria'”. I finally realized why I have been so peeved every time I hear the silly phrase “lead from behind.” An inelegant phrase, it, at the very least, wants completion. I keep thinking, “Finish the sentence, Mr. President!”

  10. sherlockat said,

    Please, read this interested point of view about this matter:

    The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, page 689, section 5.169 (electronic version) says:


    A preposition is a word or phrase that links an object and an antecedent to show the relationship between them. A preposition’s object is usually a noun, or else a pronoun in the objective case {between me and them}, but an adjective, adverb, verb, or phrase may follow instead. Usually a preposition comes before its object, but there are exceptions. For example, the preposition can end a clause, especially a relative clause, or sentence {this isn’t the pen that Steve writes with}. And a preposition used with the relative pronoun that (or with that understood) always follows the object {this is the moment [that] I’ve been waiting for}. It also frequently, but not always, follows the relative pronouns which {Which alternative is your decision based on?} {this is the alternative on which my decision is based} and whom {there is a banker [whom] I must speak with} {I can’t tell you to whom you should apply}.

    Someone from a well-respected forum said:

    “it has actually become acceptable to end sentences with prepositions! The rule itself has no basis in native English grammar, but rather comes from 19th-century grammarians trying to make English more like Latin, which was considered an “ideal” language. To this end, they said that sentences shouldn’t end with prepositions, because Latin sentences didn’t. However, English, for as long as it has been around, has always naturally tended to end sentences with prepositions.”

    Also, read this useful article:

    Thanks for your attention.


    • Alt Bart said,

      Undoubtedly, the dangling preposition comes from the ancient German roots of English.
      eg. Ich rufe ihr an.

      However, I’d also say that English is neither German nor Latin.
      Rules that sharpen meaning and make the grammar regular are well worth the effort.
      Take a good look at German and you’ll see why.
      It is just a big bag of exceptions to grammatical rules that make learning German a headache.

  11. dreamyana said,

    I’m puzzled. What about this one:
    What are you looking at?
    It sounds perfectly fine to me.

  12. HP said,

    ‘Never, ever end a sentence with “at.” Not ever, NEVER.’ Hmm. What are you getting at? What are you staring at? Is this a statement you would like to have another go at?

  13. Anonymous said,

    A girl from the south is in the freshman dormitory when her new strange roommate and her mother enter the room.
    The southern girl says,” Hi! Where are ya’ll from?”
    The girl looks at her mother, who is frowning, and says, “We are from Connecticut where we do not end our sentences with dangling prepositions.

    The southern girl says, “OH! I see. Well, where are ya’ll from, bitch?”

  14. Bill said,

    Dangling prepositions haven’t come into usage, they have always been good grammar. To avoid them is to write nonsense. “Who did she go out with?” is English. “With whom did she go out” is not; it’s an attempt to impose Latin onto English.

    And who is the nonsense about never ending a sentence with “at” directed at? Who are you aiming it at? You have used two absurd examples where the “at” simply doesn’t belong at all. Who are you pointing the finger at? Please rethink that ridiculous advice about ‘at’.

    • Lord Nullset said,

      I fully agree that certain modern sentences, such as your first example, simply do not work if they are undangled. In the case of your example, the term “go out with” is an inseparable term, so of course moving the preposition doesn’t work.

      However, I see two main, technical problems with dangling prepositions in general: 1) they force the reader/listener to loop back to the beginning of the sentence to scan for the referent (or to scan backwards, which is no better), 2) they encourage other grammatical mistakes. The former is self-evident, but the latter somewhat less so. Let’s take your examples of acceptable dangling “at”s: in each of them, you use the incorrect case of “who” because it sounds better at the beginning of a sentence (likely because that is where we expect a subject to be). Reordering the sentence to undangle it makes the problem clear: “At who are you aiming it?” “At who are you pointing the finger?”. Cringeworthy, eh?

      I honestly couldn’t care less about the history of the dangling. It seems to me that it matters more that the way in which we use our language make sense technically and that it be efficient and concise.

  15. Perhaps giving sound advice is not something the author is good at.

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