The Danger of Starting Sentences with Participial Phrases

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.

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  1. Good point. A leading participial phrase can work brilliantly, but it requires close attention to sentence structure. Another danger I’ve found is that too many leading participles can
    a) convolute the rhythm of the prose and
    b) mislead the reader about what is actually important in the sentence.

    Participles rarely contain truly important info. They can be used sparingly, to point something out to the reader, but many writers overuse them (in my opinion).

    My personal rule is that I lead each sentence with what is important for the reader to know. I’ll lead with a participle if:

    a) establishing setting is important to the scene (shooting)
    b) continuing action is important to the character (shooting)
    c) I want to disrupt a staccato passage to give the reader a beat or two to breathe before barreling along.

    Of course style varies with genre and audience, but like all stylistic constructs, leading participles work better if they have a set purpose.

  2. Thanks for a fabulous blog and a great topic in this post. A few days ago I critiqued a five-page chapter that had three danglers! The author was a beginner, but I’ve seen this error in veteran authors’ work as well.

  3. I had someone argue, and I’ve come to believe he was right, that the biggest problem with this sentence structure is that it lacked a subject at the start, even when it’s technically correct. For example, “Walking down the street, Mary listened to birds singing.” It’s pretty clear who’s walking, but the problem is, much of fiction is relying upon the reader to imagine it all inside his mind. How can he imagine “walking down the street”, if he doesn’t know who’s walking? He would need to go back mentally, so to say, and re-imagine that scene once he learned who was walking, and you should never make the reader go back, not even for half a sentence. Even worse, if he mistakenly thought that John was walking and not Mary, he’d need to go back, mentally erase John and re-imagine Mary instead. Which would take him right out of the story. So, if I do use this sentence structure, which I rarely do, I make sure the subject is clear from the previous sentence. “Mary smiled. Walking down the street, she could hear so many birds singing.” Now the reader has no problem imagining the scene. But all in all, I’d still probably use a different sentence structure. Something with less +ing.

    1. So well said- I completely agree. Although participial phrases are technically correct (if not dangling), ones that start a sentence are difficult for me to read in a novel and take me out of the story mentally. I have to keep re-imagining things, just like you said.
      I am doing beta reads for other writers and see this a lot (both correctly used ones and danglers). I always give them the suggestion to convert it to an action sentence:
      Setting the bag down, I reach in and grab a book.
      I set the bag down then reach in and grab a book.

      Although after reading several articles regarding participial phrases, I can see that you should always consider if the action is continuing or sequential in determining if the phrase is correctly used or not.
      The sentence about the bag above- I set the bag down THEN reached in and grabbed a book. So, not only is the first sentence difficult for me to read- it is probably technically incorrect because it implies that I am continuing to set the bag down as I reach in and grab a book.

      It does give me more to think about as I am reviewing/editing others’ work.

      Of course I also dislike reading/writing in present tense, but that’s another story. 😉

  4. It drives me nuts when an author has half or more of his sentences starting with participial phrases, even if they are done correctly. They sound incredibly passive. Sometimes the story isn’t good enough to carry this awkward grammar, and I’ll stop reading after the first few pages.

    1. Starting too many sentences with a name or pronoun is mind numbing. The best way to use participial phrases is to use them to set the rhythm and pace.

      Also, you might consider not using one if you are changing actors.

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