“After living with her father for six years, a Virginia Supreme Court ordered Patty to live with her mother.”

Once after English class in high school, a male fellow student sidled up to me and murmured, “Let’s put my dangling participle into your split infinitive and see if we can make a pregnant pause.” Ah, Grammar Humor! Since we didn’t have Sex Education in those days, I wasn’t quite sure what he was describing, but I did know it was risqué. And ever since, I have had a certain affection for the dangling participle, I know not why….

Well, one reason is that I can count on dangling participles for some of the funniest Horrors in my book.

What I (sometimes) call the Rule of Abutment holds that adjectives must appear either next to or on the other side of a verb of being from their nouns. When a sentence begins with an adjective phrase or an adjective clause, that adjective must modify the subject of the sentence—most commonly, the first word or words after the introductory comma and therefore right next to the introductory adjective. That rule applies even in the case of participles, which look a lot like verbs but aren’t verbs unless they’re leaning on a “helping verb.” “Drinking” alone can be an adjective (“The bird drinking at my birdbath,” “He is my drinking buddy”) or a noun (“Drinking is a form of self-medication,” “The sport I enjoy most is drinking”), but to be a verb it has to hook up with a full verb: “I have been drinking for days.”  If the participle at the beginning of the sentence does properly modify the subject, it’s just an adjective phrase (“Drinking my fourth Bloody Mary, I remembered with dismay that I had a paper due tomorrow”). If the participle does NOT properly modify the subject, it’s called a dangling participle: “Drinking my fourth Bloody Mary, my mother sobbed that I was becoming an alcoholic.” See how funny?

The dangling-participle example I write on the board is “Walking down the street, a piece of glass cut my foot.” My students ALWAYS see the error: the piece of glass is walking. But they RARELY see the identical grammatical error in their own sentences…

…This sentence, for example. It’s from an essay on that custody case I mentioned a few days ago, the homosexual father whose daughter was being affected in a negative manor. This student makes the judges who heard the appeal of the custody ruling (a Virginia Supreme Court, evidently one of several Supreme Courts in Virginia) seem to know whereof they speak. They have, after all, lived with the father for six years!

“After living with her father for six years, a Virginia Supreme Court ordered Patty to live with her mother.”

We are not told whether these judges spent any time in the mother’s house, or whether, if they did, they were bothered by second-hand smoke as she chain-puffed away despite having lost one lung to cancer. All we know is that they did live with the father, presumably while Patty was also there. Now, it seems to me that any man, gay or not, who could put up with a houseful of judges (how many on a VA supreme court—9? fewer? more?) while holding down a job and caring for a young daughter is probably a pretty competent, and patient, guy. But he wasn’t good enough for them. Still, I have to applaud their dedication to fact-finding.

My student meant of course that Patty had lived with her father for six years and was now being taken from him and sent to live with her mother. Ah, but that’s not what the student wrote.

I’m grateful for the error. The case was pretty depressing, as well as infuriating, and this sentence was a good moment of comic relief. Do you suppose they wore their robes to dinner at Thanksgiving? Enjoy the picture, even if they were also wearing disapproving scowls as they chowed down on turkey and cranberry sauce prepared by Dad.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““After living with her father for six years, a Virginia Supreme Court ordered Patty to live with her mother.”

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