Misplaced modifiers and dangling participles are among the most common writing errors that plague first-year college students. Watch this on-line workshop to learn more or download this pdf: Pesky Participles. If there is nothing for the modifier/participle to refer to, it dangles. If there is something to refer to but it is too far away, it is misplaced. Because the participle works like an adjective, it has to modify a noun, pronoun, gerund, or noun phrase. The participle (which is half-verb and half-adjective) cannot refer to a verb.
I’ve thought long and hard about why modifiers/participles are such a big problem for students, and this is what I’ve come up with. We are programmed to be meaning makers and story tellers, so our DNA almost compels us to seal the deal with a verb as soon as possible–even if that verb does not contain the most important thought. Then, somewhere mid-sentence comes the better, more nuanced thought, but we’ve used up our verb spot already, thus comes the participle, the verb wanna-be. I try to teach my students to let the syntax of the sentence carry the meaning and to make the most important idea have a complete verb in an independent clause.
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