Dangling Participles – Tutorial No. 1

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog.

The “Dangling Participle” rule is simple: Write participles and prepositions before their objects, never after. 

Most editors, and even many English teachers, are happy to let them slide these days. But I think you should correct danglers, because they go “clank!” in your reader’s inner ear. The trick is how to fix them without resorting to old-fashioned or pompous language.

Prepositions like ‘with’, ‘at’, ‘by’ and ‘on’ are often left swinging in the breeze. Here’s an example from an ‘FAQ’ page on the web. I’ve highlighted the dangling preposition in purple, and its object in green.

How many computers can I install my single-user licence on?

Danglers are a syntax error. The preposition appears after its object, instead of before it, which is standard in English. For the old-fashioned fix, just move the preposition ahead of its object:

On how many computers can I install my single-user licence?      (10 words)

While grammatically correct, this does sound a bit stuffy. But put the phrase after the clause, and we have the same thing in more modern syntax:

I can install my single-user licence on how many computers?     (10 words)

Only now we’ve lost what was best about the original sentence. The question is ‘How many?’, which is strongest at the head of the sentence. To keep this emphasis, while losing the dangler, make ‘computers’ the subject of the sentence, like this: (Subject in blue, verb in red.)

How many computers are covered by my single-user licence?     (9 words)

Oops — this requires a passive verb. But with ‘licence’ as the subject, we can make it active, like this:

 How many computers does my single-user licence cover?     (8 words)

The video shows this in animated form, with a bit more detail.



About Copymentor

Australian and US copywriter, creative director and author
This entry was posted in Business, Editing, English, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dangling Participles – Tutorial No. 1

  1. I would have not guessed that the last version of the sentence is correct. Ending the sentence with cover seems awkward to me. I’ve noticed with my own writing, that which is correct IS stuffy sounding.

    I like the way you wrote this, it’s quite clear.

    Of course, if I spend too much time thinking about “the rules” I can’t write!

    • Copymentor says:

      I agree. My choice would be the one just above it, even with the passive verb. In “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell gave five rules for clear writing. Rule #4 was “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” But Rule #6 was this:”Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Get the essay here — http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

      Thanks for the kind words and for following my blog. And don’t think about the rules when you write; they’re for when you RE-write.

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