Monday, February 14, 2011

Dangling Phrases and Clauses

When we write, we know what we mean but don't always express it. Take for instance, dangling phrases and clauses. If you reread your manuscript after a few days, you may discover them or you may still overlook them. A critique group usually finds them. Then you feel really silly for having made such an obvious mistake.

What is a dangling phrase or clause? Phrases (a sequence of two or more words acting as a unit in a sentence) and clauses (which have a subject and verb and could be a sentence on its own) appear in different places within a sentence and refer to a noun or pronoun. If placed incorrectly, they refer to the wrong noun, pronoun, or to nothing. Let's look at some examples Kathleen Phillips used in her book How to Wrtie a Story.

1. "We saw the flowers walking in the garden." Who is walking, the flowers or we? To correct the sentence we can begin with a phrase. "While walking in the garden, we saw the flowers." Now who saw the flowers and who is walking?

2. Sometimes we leave out a subject or verb and forget what we are talking about. "When still a puppy, I taught Fido to shake hands." Who or what was the puppy? If we change the phrase to a clause with a subject and verb, we understand. "When he was still a puppy, I taught Fido to shake hands." Or we can take "I" out. "When still a puppy, Fido learned to shake hands."

3. Danglers may appear anywhere in a sentence. "A dog almost bit me when I was riding my bicycle." If we change the order of the sentence, it becomes clearer. "When I was riding my bicycle, a dog almost bit me."

4. Orphaned pronouns cause misunderstanding in a sentence. "The dog bit my tire and then it sprang a leak."
Although the pronoun "it" is closer to tire, it still seems to refer to the dog because of the word "then."
Rearranging the sentence solves the problem. "My tire sprang a leak when the dog bit it."

5. If a modifier rests too far from the word it modifies, the meaning can be confusing, amusing and/or distracting. "Later I saw the dog with a girl on a long leash." What did the author mean for the phrase to modify? If we place the phrase closer to dog, we correct the meaning. "Later, I saw a girl with the dog on a long leash."

Dangling phrases and clauses provide humor and relaxes any tension within a critique group. However, I'm not saying to add them to your writing for humor sake. What if they aren't caught?


  1. Aaargh, more stuff to remember as I revise.

  2. Kay, sorry to make more work for you! I wrote something this morning and need to go back and check the phrases and clauses, too.