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Participles: The hidden danger of -ing

One of the most popular stylistic elements in prose is the participle. Its creation through appending a subtle "-ing" to a verb is so quickly done and changes the tone of the whole sentence, making it flow and hum with skillful art. Or does it?

It's not easy to explain participles, as they are literary chimeras. They're not really verbs anymore, nor are they nouns (unlike their relatives, the gerunds). They aren't adjectives either, but they form adjectives when they work together with the rest of the clause they reside in. It's best described via an example:

I bit my lip, and I looked shyly over at her.

We could turn either of the two verbs "bit" and "looked" into a participle. Let's go for the first one:

Biting my lip, I looked shyly over at her.

The participle created a sense of simultaneity. The simple sentence "I bit my lip" is turned into an adjective that modifies the subject "I" in the subsequent clause. Another example would be:

Floating in the warm water, we lost all sense of time.

Easy? There are some catches...

Dangling whatnots

While it sounds dangerous, a "Dangling participle" is nothing more than a particple attached to the wrong noun. A participle modifies a noun so, if you use one, you have take great care that it finds the correct noun. Changing the first example slightly:

I bit my lip, and the girl across the table looked shyly at me.

Introducing the participle now introduces a problem: a shy, but rather violent, girl:

Biting my lip, the girl across the table looked shyly at me.

The noun in sight of the participle is "the girl", so we're telling the world that this shy girl bit our lip. How she did that from across the table is left to anyone's imagination. Another example:

The lush canopy shielded the path and protected me from the blazing sun. Walking through the forest, birds and deer filled it with their sounds.

No, the birds and deer weren't walking through the forest. I was! But the sentence above would suggest differently.

Greedy little buggers!

The second problem with participles is they are greedy. Compare the next two sentences, and you'll probably see the difference instantly:

I looked up the tree waving at my friend.

I looked up the tree, waving at my friend.

Participles try to latch onto the closest noun they can find. In the first example, this is the tree. But why would a tree wave at our friend? In such constructs, where there is another noun between the one to be modified and the participle, a comma tells it to be less greedy and go for the more distant noun. So, in the second example, the comma says, "Hey, it's not the tree that waves, it's me!"

It also makes a difference if the participle is at the beginning or end of the sentence. If it's at the beginning, no comma can save you from its greed; if you put a participle at the front of the queue, it'll always devour the first edible thing in reach from the buffet.

Beware the subjectless verb

Be on the lookout for participle clauses where the verb has no subject, and avoid constructs such as this:

Raising my skirt and giving naughty glimpses of my panties.

The correct form should be something like:

I raised my skirt, giving a naughty peek of my panties.