The bedroom farce
by Dirk E. Oldman
Everyone knows danglers are bad. Your sentences have to be firm! They have to stand up to stiff analysis!
On the other hand, a lot of people don’t actually have a clear idea of what danglers are. You’ll see people condemning as “dangling participles” things that don’t even have participles. Sometimes they’ll even be at the end of a sentence.
Well, there it is. For some people who want grammar to have rigid rules, grammar turns out to be a bit too… hard. So they’re busy being pricks about the wrong things.
I’m not going to tell you that danglers are OK. It’s true that dangling participles and other dangling modifiers are often understandable and sometimes pass unnoticed by practically everyone. And they can have great comedic potential. But if you don’t want your prose to be unintentionally funny, they’re not so good. If you want your text to be clear and tight and not to degrade into the textual equivalent of a bedroom farce, avoid danglers.
So I need to say what danglers are and why you should avoid them. But first I want to make sure that everyone’s clear on what participles are.
You know already that English sentences are basically A-does-B, because I’ve already said so in previous posts. The key thing is that in any clause there’s only one finite, conjugated verb. It’s like monogamy. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, ya know?
Except that for some people, two’s company and three’s a party. And English, our polymorphous perverse tongue, is like that. Ironically, it’s like we’re in France, or what people think France is like: it’s OK to get a bit on the side, and a lot of them are doing it.
These sidelines to the main actions, these parties with extra participants, are the participles. They’re also verbs, but they aren’t the official main event. They just say something is happening or has happened. Sometimes they’re right there with the main verb because the main verb is really an auxiliary. It’s like a sham marriage where the real gig is the illicit lover. Here, I’ll bold the participles:
I am cheating on you.
I have cheated on you.
Tomorrow I plan to be cheating on you again, and by this time tomorrow I will have cheated on you for the four hundred and sixty-ninth time.
Those are not dangling, though. We’ll get to that. Don’t worry.
The thing about participles is that they can also be used like adjectives, to modify nouns:
I’ll kill you, you cheating louse.
Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman.
And you can use whole phrases as modifiers that are built around participles:
It is a remarkable coincidence that I, headed for Las Vegas and thinking of having a sidebar, should find you with the same intentions.
Quite often these go at the beginning of the sentence:
Headed for Las Vegas, I encountered a fellow traveller.
Intending to play around a bit, she took an interest in my proposition.
Sometimes just the participle itself is used:
Winking, she slipped into the bus bathroom.
There are also other modifying phrases you can use, not just participles.
As lusty as she was lovely, my travelling companion proved an brief but intense diversion.
The thing that causes is trouble is the question of exactly who in the sentence is getting this extra bit on the side. Technically, it’s straightforward: it’s whoever – or whatever – this bit is right on the side of. When the modifier is at the start of the sentence, that’s the next noun right after it – not counting modifiers (in Charlie’s aunt, it’s aunt, not Charlie, that’s in for the action, because Charlie’s modifies aunt).
But here’s the thing: sometimes there’s a confusion. People are thinking of some other party involved in the sentence when they write the modifier, and they put it next to a noun it doesn’t belong with.
Picture yourself in one of those French or British bedroom farces. There’s a secret lover who is looking to have a tryst with Mrs. Van Koekhold. He asks you where to find her. She’s actually waiting in the maid’s boudoir, but, just thinking “Van Koekhold,” you send him to Mr. Van Koekhold’s bedroom. Or you send Mr. Van Koekhold to her.
This is like what happens with a dangling modifier. You can see the effect when the modifier at the beginning is intended for the noun later in the sentence:
Eager to avoid the boring spouse, Mr. Van Koekhold encountered Le Priape in the hallway.
Wearing her sexiest nightie, Mr. Van Koekhold surprised Mrs. Van Koekhold in the boudoir.
Frustrated, I was upbraided by Le Priape.
Someone’s left dangling.
In cases like the ones above, the problem is obvious and the confusion can be comical. Most danglers are a little easier to understand and a little less funny. You more often get this sort of thing:
Running through the hall, the absurdity of the situation struck me.
As concupiscent as she was corpulent, Mrs. Van Koekhold’s nightie resembled mosquito netting.
Washed and rinsed, the under-butler was hanging out his linens when someone lurched into the room.
We see these and it’s more like Le Priape accidentally lunging into the chamber of the under-butler, who wearily looks up and says “Next door, next door.” It’s pretty clear what the modifier is intended for. We assume that the absurdity is not running through the hall and the nightie is not concupiscent. We think it more likely that the linen, not the under-butler, was washed and rinsed.
So people get away with it. The under-butler waves them on. But the under-butler can get tired, and in the course of your textual misadventures your real lover – your reader – can get bored with your sloppiness and seek out better company. And I wouldn’t blame him or her.
So look who you’re hooking up your bit on the side with. If it’s at the beginning of the sentence, it will be the subject of the sentence. Whatever is doing the main verb is also getting this bit on the side. Don’t switch the bedrooms. Unless you’re trying to be funny.