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?”