EDITING 101: 24 – Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles

Editors frequently correct both of these, but one is actually ok to use, while the other is not. Care to make a wager on which one is which before I get started?

Ante up!

What is a split infinitive, after all? It’s a sentence where a word, usually an adverb, interrupts a full verb (or full infinitive). A full infinitive is the verb with the word “to” in front of it—to run, to walk, to spit. The most famous split infinitive is “to boldly go.” Editors and teachers used to mark this as incorrect, but it’s all right to split an infinitive. Some examples are:

  • Lyn continued to quickly run toward the burning building.

  • Willow wanted to generously sprinkle sugar on her doughnut.

  • Earl’s dog struggled to boldly chase the skunk.

If you want to avoid irritating some readers who will read these words and insist they are wrong (as Word’s grammar checker does—I have a green squiggly line under each of my three examples), it’s a relatively simple matter to avoid splitting an infinitive by reworking the sentence.

  • Lyn continued to run quickly toward the burning building.

  • Willow wanted to sprinkle sugar generously on her doughnut.

  • Earl’s dog struggled to chase the skunk boldly.

You can see, though, that in the last case, it is unclear as to whether or not Earl’s dog struggled boldly or wanted to chase boldly. If you’re determined to avoid a split infinitive, reworking may be necessary.

Now we move on to dangling participles, which is the one that definitely needs to be fixed!

(Appropriate money changes hands here.)

Adjectives ending in “ing” and “ed” need to be used with care to ensure they’re modifying the proper noun. Examples of “ing” adjectives are “streaming video” or “hiking campers.” As a phrase, an “ing” adjective is usually set off by commas.

  • Floating in the pool, I gazed at the fluffy white clouds.

Floating in the pool” is the participle phrase that modifies the subject “I.” This is simple, as the phrase is right next to the subject. You can get into trouble, however, when a participle phrase occurs in the middle of a sentence, when a sentence is long and involved and the phrase is not near the subject, or there is more than one subject or in the sentence.

They’re called “dangling” because they are not firmly attached to the correct subject.

  • Floating in the pool, the fluffy white clouds looked beautiful as I gazed at them.

Who was floating in the pool? We understand, after the first example, that I am still the one gazing at the fluffy white clouds. But now, in the second example, the subjects nearest the participle phrase are the clouds themselves. In this example, what was really written is that the clouds are floating in the pool.

As the writer, you may understand perfectly what you have written. But there may be some confusion on the part of the reader if you dangle your participle phrase.

Here are some other sentences that I found on the Internet which contain dangling participles:

  • Hiking in the forest, the birds chirped impressively.

  • Wanting to sing, the high notes taunted me.

  • Flying gaily from flower to flower, the football player watched the bee.

  • Looking around the yard, dandelions sprouted in every corner.

  • Running after the school bus, the backpack bounced from side to side.

  • Plunging hundreds of feet into the gorge, we saw Yosemite Falls.

How would you rework these?

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Style Guides for Fiction’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.

Susan

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53 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 24 – Split Infinitives and Dangling Participles…

  1. I’m ever so grateful that splitting infinitives has become acceptable. “Boldly to go” or “to go boldly” just doesn’t sound right and flows awkwardly off the tongue. Dangling participles, however, drive me crazy! I don’t like having to read further simply to figure out what the author meant, and then have to backtrack and read the same material over again to get the full effect. Yet, at the same time, it’s an easy mistake to make ~ another good reason to employ editors and beta readers 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    This column is near and dear to my heart. I’ve posted on dangling modifiers before, and I see them all the time in my critique groups.

    A couple of thoughts:

    First, the aversion to “splitting infinitives” comes from an 18th-century spurt of wishfulness that English could be elevated to the status of Latin—in which infinitives are one word and can’t be “split.” Note that in Romance languages like French and Spanish, this still holds true; how can you “split” an infinitive like “hablar”? But English is not a Romance language, despite having picked up many words from French, Spanish, and Italian, in particular. So those “rules” never rightly applied.

    Second, note that “to boldly go” is in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s meter, and a natural meter in English. That’s why “to go boldly” just doesn’t have the same ring.

    Dangling modifiers, on the other hand, cause problems for me because there’s a brief mental hiccup when the modifier has to hunt for its appropriate noun or pronoun. Sure, I can figure out who or what is doing the action of the modifier, but do writers really want readers stopping, even for a second, to puzzle?

    This column is clear and concise, presenting these issues well. Thanks to both Chris the Story Reading Ape and Adirondack Editing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh dear, I suspect I am guilty of all of it 😦 I don’t know if I should be worried or not. Should I turn into a grammar detective and go scouring through all my posts looking for the splits and dangly thingys ? On the other hand no-one has complained – not to me anyway. Perhaps they’re muttering in the background…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Well done, and I’m always having to go back and check for dangling participles, so I appreciate the reminder. But I absolutely hate split infinitives. It’s very hard for me to ignore them, as it was drilled–and I mean we had actual stand up and yell it out drills–into me that you never, ever split that infinitive. I remember watching the very first year of Star Trek (yep, I’m that old) and yelling at the tv every, single time: “To GO BOLDLY, you dolt!” (Okay, so I was a nerdy teenager, but I got straight A’s in English. 😀 ) I’d say I’m a lost cause on that one. Rewording is fine, when needed, but no splitting for me. At least, not if I see that I’ve done it, anyway.

    Thanks for the reminders, though. Dangling participles had nearly vanished into the mists of time, until my editor gently reminded me. It’s always good to have a brief refresher!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hahaha, Marcia! I was probably a little younger than you at the time, but I also recognized that “to boldly go” was not quite right. However, English is a fluid language, always changing. So some of us have to give up our firmly held convictions (like the distinction between who/whom) and just sigh. 😀

      Liked by 2 people

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