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The Danger of Starting Sentences with Participial Phrases

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What’s so dangerous about . . . whatever those things are? What is a participle? It’s a verb or a noun that gets turned into an adjective. Participles can be in the present tense or the past tense, and the present participle always ends with “ing.” For example, “sing” is a verb, and “singing” is its present participle.

Here are some examples of sentence openings with participles:

  • Floating downstream . . .
  • Beating me at cards . . .
  • Turning the doorknob . . .

There is nothing wrong with beginning sentences with these phrases, but watch what happens when close attention isn’t being paid to the subject of the phrase:

  • Floating downstream, the day seemed so peaceful.
  • Beating me at cards, my fun evening with my friends cost me my week’s wages.
  • Turning the doorknob, the noises in the creepy room scared me.

You’d have a strange story with days that float down streams, evenings that can play cards, and noises that can turn doorknobs. These erroneous constructions are called “dangling participles”—because a phrase ends up hanging all by its lonesome without a proper subject to support it.

Solution: Do a search through your document for ing and examine all sentences that begin with a participial phrase. If any are dangling, grab the correct noun and put it in place to support the phrase.

Is Your Modifier Misplaced?

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Let’s start the new year by taking a look at misplaced modifiers. A modifier is . . . well, what it sounds like. It’s a word or phrase that modifies (affects, changes) another word.

In the phrase “blue ball,” the adjective blue modifies the noun ball. Writers sometimes stick those modifiers in the wrong place in a sentence. Take a look at these lines and see if you can identify the problem:

  • This morning I chased a dog in my pajamas. (Did the dog dress himself?)
  • I sold a desk to a lady that had broken legs. (Poor woman; how will she carry that desk?)
  • We sat on the porch listening to the birds sing while playing cards. (Wow, talented birds.)
  • She saw several whales on vacation in Mexico. (Do whales take vacations?)
  • The hunter waited for the lion with a rifle in his hand. (Or should I say, “in his paw”?)

Modifiers can sneak into the wrong places if we’re not careful.

Solution: Check your long, complex sentences and make them shorter. Break them into two shorter sentences that have clear adjectives connected to (modifying) the noun. Or move the modifying phrase to the proper location in the sentence.

For example: The hunter waited with a rifle in his hand for the lion. Easy.

Now that I found those modifiers, maybe you can tell me where I misplaced my glasses.

Let’s Be in Agreement

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I think we can all agree that subjects and verbs need to agree with one another. A singular subject takes a singular verb.

  • Nancy is the school librarian.

Plural subjects take plural verbs:

  • Nancy and Ned are friends.

But we don’t always write with such simple subjects. What is the correct verb form in these sentences?

  • A pack of wolves was/were howling in the distance.
  • A bundle of ballots was/were found in the official’s car.
  • A flock of geese is/are migrating overhead.

Each subject includes both a singular and a plural noun: pack—singular/wolves—plural; bundle—singular/ballots—plural; flock—singular/geese—plural. So do you use a singular or plural verb?

I could get into a lot of technical terms here like notional vs. formal agreement and predeterminer. But I prefer Merriam-Webster’s “plain sense” solution: “When you have a collecting noun phrase (a bunch of) before a plural noun (the boys), the sense will normally be plural and so should the verb.” Continue Reading…

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