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?
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’
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.