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Introductory Adjectival Phrases

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Here’s Rule 11 in Strunk & White

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Strunk & White, p. 13.

But many people seem to have trouble following this rule. The rule actually applies more broadly, goes beyond a participial phrase, and applies to any introductory adjectival phrase. Whenever you introduce a sentence with any adjectival phrase, that phrase must modify the grammatical subject of the sentence.

Introductory -ing Phrase

Many times the introductory adjective phrase is a present-participial phrase, that is, a phrase having a verb in its present-participial form (‑ing). When you use such a phrase, the grammatical subject of your sentence must be the “do-or” of that verbal activity.

If the subject is not the “do-or,” then the phrase is unconnected, that is, it dangles.

Here’s an example of a dangling present-participial phrase:

When arguing for this approach, statistical research must be cited.

Note that the grammatical subject, statistical research, is not the agent (the do-or) of arguing. A person or organization capable of human thought must do the arguing. Here’s the revision:

When arguing for this approach, the committee must cite statistical research.

Watch Out for the Passive Voice

Many dangling participles, like the one above, are caused by the passive voice:

When arguing . . . research must be cited . . . .

I see these structures pop up all the time. They are at war with each other. First, the passive-voice verb boots the actor or agent out of the sentence. Then the present-participial phrase pleads for the opposite.

“Attach me to the agent,” it screams.

“No,” replies the passive voice, “I won’t do it. Actor, you’re outta here!”

Readers, of course, feel uncomfortable, for they know that the following sentence would win no prizes and makes no sense:

Catching a pass, the winning touchdown was made.

So when you’re tempted to say, when arguing . . . research must be cited, remember the superiority of the active voice and the strong desire the present participle has for its actor, bring the actor back into your writing, and say:

When arguing for this approach, the committee must cite statistical research.

After all:

Catching the pass, Santana Moss scored the winning touchdown.

Click page 2 below. Introductory -ed Phrase

With past-participial phrases (i.e., -ed verbs), the reverse is true. When you introduce a sentence with a past-participial phrase, the grammatical subject of the sentence must be the recipient of the action, i.e., the “do-ee” of that verbal activity.

If the subject is not the “do-ee,” then the phrase is similarly unconnected, that is, it dangles.

Hence the term: dangling participle.

Here’s an example of a dangling past-participial phrase:

Shown at the mall, many people saw Titanic.

Notice that the introductory past participle, shown, does not modify the grammatical subject of the sentence, many people. Instead, it modifies the direct object, Titanic. The participle must modify the grammatical subject. Otherwise, it dangles. Here’s the revision:

Shown at the mall, Titanic attracted many people.

A Problem with Based on

I should pause and point out a particular past participle that many people use at the beginning of sentences. Check this out:

Based on our research, we decided to adopt this policy.

As you can see, we are not based on our research. The writer is trying to modify the verb decided to adopt. But the introductory past participle must act as an adjective and must modify the grammatical subject. It cannot act as an adverb and modify the verb decided to adopt.

The solution is to use a true prepositional phrase, which then can act as an adverb modifying the main verb in the sentence. Take a look:

As a result of our research, we decided to adopt this policy.

Henry Fowler urges:

[Writers should] avoid using Based on as a kind of sentence-leading preposition: Based on this assumption, the economy is not expected to improve before the autumn. The relationship between Based on and the economy is not a direct one. New Fowler, p. 94.

I think New Fowler could have gone further and pointed out that based is a past participle, which requires the recipient of the "basing" to serve as the grammatical subject of the sentence.

 

Previous: Chapter 6 - Dangling Participles Next: Examples of Nondangling Participles

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