The Relentless Rise of the Dot Dot Dot

Angry man
Stickler, meet ellipsis; ellipsis, meet stickler.

Dot dot dots are dot-dot-dotted around everywhere these days. While those of us who get passionate about punctuation have been discussing whether semicolons have a place in fiction, or decrying the overuse of exclamation marks in emails, behind our backs the three-dotted fiend has been evolving and spreading.

And some readers of this blog are not going to be happy with what dot dot dot has been getting up to. Those of you who consider themselves sticklers for proper punctuation may want to stop reading here. Sticklers might wish to peruse WordPress’s Freshly Pressed section instead, where there’s sure to be another blog about leveraging social media to increase book sales any . . . second . . . now. (Sorry to use ellipses in an unconventional way there, sticklers. I fully intended to wait till those of you who wanted to leave this page had been given a proper opportunity to do so before unleashing the dots. Bad me.)

Should any sticklers decide to stick around – and it goes without saying I’ll be delighted if you do – I recommend you have a Mozart CD or bottle of Bach Rescue Remedy at hand, because you might need something to calm you down in a moment or two.

I would now like to extend a warm welcome to all you readers who’ve made it as far as this paragraph and inform you we’re going on a journey of discovery today. Well, perhaps not a journey of discovery exactly but more a journey of acknowledging something that’s been going on for a long time yet doesn’t get discussed much. A journey of confirmation, if you will. Because our three-dotted friend the ellipsis (also known as ‘ellipsis points’ and ‘suspension points’ in the States) has been busy, busy, busy out there on the frontiers of written communication – particularly in emails, comics and the place we concern ourselves with here, genre fiction.

I would hazard a guess that, during the last 25 years or so, ellipses have been the most avant-garde punctuation marks out there. Not much competition, really, as far as I can see. When was the last time you saw a colon do anything new? ‘Look at me! I’m a colon! I’m introducing a list!’ (Yawns. Looks at watch. Thinks about what’s for dinner.) Ever see a semicolon getting into some daring punctuational mischief? (Don’t mention emoticons, please.)

Our three-dotted friend, on the other hand, has been innovating for England. If punctuation marks were people, Mr Ellipsis would prefer it if you referred to him by his first name, Eli, and be hanging out with jazz musicians and contemporary artists who make installations from seaweed and paint with blood. Dot dot dot even enjoyed a period of fame – or should that be three periods of fame? Or, became three famous periods? – when it was mentioned in the film Trainspotting, released in 1996. You don’t see commas being namechecked in tales about Edinburgh’s heroin-ravaged underbelly.

Let’s get eyes on an ellipsis (note that WordPress won’t allow me to generate an Alt-Ctrl-period dot dot dot, which is my ellipsis of choice, so I’m using what follows as a substitute).

. . .

Look at it. No other punctuation mark, aside from a dash, covers so much ground laterally. Okay, your question mark, a Victorian street lamp of a piece of punctuation, has got a lot more vertical action going on, as has an exclamation mark, but when it comes to the horizontal plane, an ellipsis really spans space. That’s important to note, because a key function an ellipsis can perform is that of adding a split second to the time it takes readers to reach the next word in a sentence. An ellipsis used in this way is ground the eye has to cover. In other words, it introduces a beat.

Let’s begin our field study of dot dot dots by looking at some well-established uses of them in fiction. (Sticklers won’t find any of what follows in the next part offensive. When we reach the threshold of the dangerous section, I’ll give a clear warning.) Right, I need someone I can rely on to speak in a nervous way. That would be the Snow King’s new cellmate, then. You’ll remember that John Dudley, he of the parish of Dunbad Prison, nicknamed the Snow King on account of his being a cocaine dealer, viciously murdered his cellmate a couple of blogs ago. It stands to reason that his new cellmate is going to be apprehensive about having to share a confined space with him.

Let’s have them meet for the first time.

The Snow King was sitting on the edge of his bed, reading Nuts. A short and stocky middle-aged man with a ginger beard walked into the cell carrying bedding and a copy of The Lord of the Rings.

       ‘I’m . . .’ he said. ‘What I . . . This is my cell. I mean, your cell . . . It’s our cell now, I suppose.’ He smiled, put down the bedding and the book and extended his right arm towards Dudley. ‘I’m Brian. I didn’t get your . . .’

     The Snow King ignored him and turned the page of his magazine.

The first two ellipses indicate Brian trails off while speaking and doesn’t finish saying what he was going to say; the third also indicates he stops speaking, but in this case he stops after completing a thought. Note that the final ellipsis again indicates Brian stopped speaking before he finished what he was going to say – ‘I didn’t get your name’ in this instance – and not that Brian was interrupted by the Snow King. An em dash is used to show an interruption, not an ellipsis. Let’s rewrite the scene a little to show an em dash performing that function.

         Brian said, ‘I didn’t get your—’

         ‘Hey, hobbit features.’ The Snow King slapped his magazine down on the bed, stood and grabbed Brian by the collar of his shirt. ‘Who gave you permission to talk?’

By the way, if you use an ellipsis to indicate a speaker trails off or pauses, try to avoid saying he does, too. Don’t do this:

        ‘I’m . . .’ Brian trailed off. ‘What I mean is . . .’ He stopped.

Or this:

        ‘I mean, it’s your cell . . .’ Brian paused. ‘I suppose it’s our cell now.’

I see this type of thing a lot in manuscripts. You shouldn’t need to write ‘Brian trailed off’ or ‘He stopped’ or ‘Brian paused’, since the ellipses indicate those things happened. Have faith in the power of those dots, people.

Next on our list of conventional ways to use ellipses: phone conversations where the author reveals what only one of the two parties is saying. Here’s Brian talking to his wife on a payphone, which of course he had to queue for half an hour to use, since that’s always the way in prison-based fiction (prisoners in Brazil sidestep this problem by getting cats to smuggle mobile phones in to them – an obvious solution, really):

        “I’ll be fine, really I will . . . My cellmate?” Brian cleared his throat and put a smile in his voice. “Yeah, nice guy, actually . . . No, I don’t know why he’s here, no, but I think we’re going to get along just fine. We’ll be playing Dungeons & Dragons together in no time.”

What a liar, eh? I see John Dudley as more of a Scrabble kind of guy. Who cuts off your little finger and wears it around his neck as a trophy if you beat him.

In this case, the ellipses signify Brian’s wife is talking. Note how each ellipsis is being used to suggest Brian isn’t talking and instead is listening to his wife for a longer period than the time it takes the reader to cross the no man’s land of the ellipsis and reach the next word. The writer wants you to imagine Brian’s wife – let’s call her Samantha – is speaking in chunks. If we stopped and thought about it, we’d guess Samantha’s first question is ‘What’s your cellmate like?’ and her second is ‘What’s your cellmate in prison for?’

Right. Now comes the moment the sticklers will have been dreading. We’re going to cross a border and move on from talking about ellipses in dialogue to talking about them in narration. If you do decide to bravely continue reading, sticklers, now is the time to squeeze a few drops of that Bach Rescue Remedy into a glass of water, or tee up that Mozart CD. But if you don’t have either of those two relaxation aids at hand, read on without fear, because I have made provision for just that circumstance.


While researching this blog, I read through 20 genre fiction manuscripts and looked at the use of ellipses in each one. Nearly every author used ellipses in dialogue, but only about seven or eight used ellipses in narration, and only four of these writers used them in what could be described as a full-bloodied way. Which means one in five authors wrote sentences like the following.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . . then butcher him.

Here’s a photo of a nice tropical beach I’ve been keeping ready to help the sticklers in moments of punctuational crisis like this one.

Tropical beach

Easy, now. Take deep breaths. In . . . out. (Sorry about the punctuation there.) Look at the picture. Keep looking at the picture.

In an interview I gave recently, I compared this kind of ellipsis to the moment in the UK version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? when a contestant has given his or her final answer, and Chris Tarrant, the quizmaster, draws out the tension by taking his time to reveal whether that answer is correct. Since then I’ve taken to calling this type of ellipsis a Tarrant (a Vieira in dollars and cents). If that’s a Tarrant, the following is an extended Tarrant.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .

         . . . then butcher him.

Tropical beach

Focus on the nice picture of the nice beach, sticklers. Don’t look at the dots; look at the picture. Nice beach. Nice dot-less beach in dot-less paradise.

Those of you who can stomach those ellipses should look at the second one now. Though it helps lengthen the beat between week and then, lengthening that beat is not its main purpose. So what is that second ellipsis doing? Its function becomes clear when we try leaving it out.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .

         then butcher him.

Horrible. We really don’t like to see an indented new line start with a word the initial letter of which is lower case. But we’re conditioned to accept that a word can begin with a lower-case letter when it’s preceded by an ellipsis, so the second ellipsis smooths the connection between the two parts of the sentence. The ellipses plug both sentence parts together.

Let’s look at the original sentence again.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .

         . . . then butcher him.

I often see Tarrants used to punch up passages containing less dramatic revelations, such as the reporting of a character’s transformation. Imagine the Snow King has been taking anger management classes – and let’s face it, the guy needs them – and is now spending his free time looking after cockatiels and budgies and making model ships out of matchsticks. If I were an ellipsis-happy author, I might write a few lines describing Dudley’s new hobbies, then add this:

The Snow King was becoming . . . mellow.

An example of someone who likes to use this kind of Tarrant is the highly successful British crime writer Mark Billingham – or at least he was partial to Tarrants in his novel Scaredy Cat, first published in 2002, which I read last year. Billingham is also a stand-up comedian, and of course beats are important tools in joke telling, where timing is everything, so perhaps Billingham’s use of beats in comedy has influenced the way he punctuates sentences in his crime fiction.

You will have noticed I haven’t made any value judgments about Tarrants. Well, we’re all grown-ups here. If authors want to use ellipses in the way I’ve shown above, then that’s their choice. For what it’s worth, though, Tarrants are not really my cup of tea. Tarrants, particularly extended Tarrants, come across to me as somewhat melodramatic devices, for which reason I place them in the same category as one-sentence paragraphs, stacked one-sentence paragraphs, and rampant italics. When I come across a Tarrant, I suddenly become very aware of the writer and how he or she is attempting to manipulate me. It’s not that I mind being manipulated, but I do mind seeing the levers being pulled.

But, hey, live and let live. Which I bet isn’t what the sticklers reading this are thinking. If you’re a stickler, right about now you’re probably wishing that imaginary stick you’ve been stickling with is a real one you can use to beat authors like Mark Billingham into punctuational conformity. (We all know sticklers are stick-carrying referees at Cornish wrestling matches, right?)

As with anything, ellipses can be used in good ways and in ways that are not so good. Should you wish to see a master of the ellipsis at work, I recommend you read some Ian Rankin novels. (Yes, sticklers, I’m really suggesting you might want to go out of your way to see more ellipses in narration. You need the photo again? Sure, here it is.)

Tropical beach

Rankin is one of the best crime writers the UK has produced. He also likes the band Hawkwind, which makes me feel better than I otherwise would about my teenage infatuation with the space-rock combo. And the guy knows how  to wield an ellipsis. Writing in The Guardian about Fleshmarket Close, the 2004 instalment of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, said, ‘The reader is pulled in to the detective’s hunches by markers in the narrative – clues left by the author, we might say. We particularly know that we should feel for a deeper plot when there is an ellipsis, marked by three points.’

Look at that change in fortunes, people. A moment ago ellipses were basically described as cheap effects, but now they are being called ‘markers in the narrative’ and indicators that we should ‘feel for a deeper plot’ by a professor of English, no less. Context is everything, I guess. Here comes a hardworking ellipsis in a passage taken from Rankin’s Resurrection Men (2002). While Inspector Rebus is at a boring meeting, he loses interest in what’s being said and thinks about a case. I’m only going to quote a couple of lines either side of the ellipsis, by the way.

Five minutes into the lecture, Rebus let his eyes and mind drift out of focus. He was back on the Marber case . . .

         Edward Marber had been an Edinburgh art and antiques dealer. Past tense, because Marber was now dead, bludgeoned outside his home by assailant or assailants unknown.

Nice. That’s an ellipsis doing good work right there, smoothing the transition from a direct scene to a nugget of backstory. As those of you who’ve tried switching gears like that in your own work will know, it can be a tricky thing to pull off.

So, it turns out there can be an art to this ellipsis business. I know the sticklers are going to hate me for saying this, but we need to embrace our three-dotted friends, not fight them as if they’re a punctuational plague. Battling against them is a waste of time anyway, since in this particular case, not only has the horse bolted, but it left the stables about 20 years ago and died of old age before presumably finding its way into Ikea meatballs, if we’re to believe the reports in the British media. What I’m trying to say, sticklers, is it’s too late. The ellipsis infestation is here . . . to stay. You need the photo again?


Should we call what I’ve been calling an ellipsis ‘an ellipsis’? In the UK, it’s normal to do so. Things are a little different in the States, though, where our three-dotted friend is sometimes referred to as an ellipsis (see The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance), sometimes called ‘suspension points’, and at other times referred to as ‘ellipsis points’.

The Chicago Manual of Style makes a subtle distinction, saying dot dot dot should be called either ellipsis points or suspension points depending on its function (see rule 13.48). The manual rightly defines an ellipsis as an omission of text. Academic A quotes academic B in journal C and leaves out part of the quotation that isn’t relevant – that’s an ellipsis. Text has been elided; an elision has taken place. Words have been left out, to put it in plain English. When our three-dotted friend indicates an ellipsis, it should be called ‘ellipsis points’, not an ellipsis; an ellipsis is the thing ellipsis points signal.

Then the revered style manual appears to go a bit dot dot dotty.

When dot dot dot is used to indicate what CMOS calls ‘suspended or interrupted thought’, it should be called suspension points (13.48 again). But does CMOS really mean suspended or interrupted thought? Because though at first CMOS says suspension points should be used to indicate thought that’s suspended or interrupted, it switches to talking about using the dots to indicate ‘faltering or fragmented speech’ (my italics) in the rule, 13.39, where it expands on the pronouncement it makes in 13.48. Maybe CMOS meant to say both thought and speech.

In 13.39, CMOS appears to contradict what it says in 13.48 by stating that interruptions in thought are usually indicated by em dashes, not ellipses, a recommendation it indicates it talks about further in yet another rule, 6.84. But 6.84 talks about using em dashes for sudden breaks in thought, not interruptions.

And though CMOS goes to the effort of distinguishing between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48, it ignores the distinction in 13.39 when it says suspension points can be used to indicate an ellipsis.

This is all very, very strange.

The distinction CMOS makes between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48 is actually a good one. When dot dot dot is used in dialogue to indicate a speaker stops speaking for a moment, the author isn’t leaving anything out; instead, the writer indicates the speaker is taking his or her time to say whatever it is he or she has to say. Similarly, if someone doesn’t finish his or her sentence, and a writer uses dot dot dot to convey that, those dots don’t stand in for words that have been left out in the way that ellipsis points do.

The distinction may be logical and sensible, but personally I choose not to make it, since, as I said, we Brits call dot dot dot an ellipsis in all cases, and that works for us. Besides, if we started handing out names to dot dot dot for each function, we’d have to invent a lot of new names. Because our three-dotted friend does more than show text has been left out and indicate someone stopped talking.

Photos: © Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, messages attached to cats, smoke signals of the type that indicate pope-hiring decisions . . .

Need a Copy Editor for Your Novel?

Profile picIt’s important that you find a copy editor who’s right for you and your novel and with whom you have good rapport. Not all copy editors are the same, and not all offer the same service, so it’s a good idea to shop around and find someone who meets your requirements and with whom you can develop a good relationship.

I’ve been copyediting since 1990, and I’m highly skilled and experienced. I only copyedit fiction, and I edit between 20 and 25 full-length manuscripts a year. I work with debut novelists, bestselling writers and everyone in between. As well as working with independent authors, I copyedit for publishers.

If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll edit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get them back to you within 48 hours.

Are All Your Actions in Order?

plane and shavings

Assuming you’ve been following the advice I’ve been giving in this blog series, when you fact-checked your manuscript, or went on dangler patrol, or eliminated those commas in compound predicates, it was a little like planing a piece of wood, and misspelled brand names, danglers and misplaced commas fell to the floor from your manuscript, so to speak. The advice in this instalment, however, could lead to some sweeping up of manuscript shavings on your part only if you’re an author who tends to write a certain kind of sentence – namely, the type using participial phrases containing present participles (I’ll go into what that actually means in a moment). If you are one of those writers, you might just be making a couple of mistakes I often see in manuscripts and which I’m going to discuss here. 

Let’s nail down what I mean by participial phrases containing present participles – and no, I have no idea where this carpentry imagery is coming from, since woodwork is not my strong suit, evidenced by the fact that at school I couldn’t even produce a functioning dovetail joint. Nor was I any good at metalwork.

Now that I’ve somehow got on to the subject of making stuff out of wood and metal at school, and seeing as this is a blog about language, I think it’s only right I share my one abiding memory of metalwork lessons – conversations like the one that follows that came after my bewhiskered, Scottish metalwork teacher, whose name I forget, told me to do something, and I replied by saying ‘Alright.’ Scots Whiskers: ‘Stop saying “alright”, laddie. It’s not a proper word.’ Me: ‘Alright.’ Whiskers: ‘I said stopping saying alright!’ Me: ‘And I said alright. I’ll stop saying alright. Alright?’ Etc. Ad detention. Oh, the fun we had provoking the stick-in-the-mud teachers at our stick-in-the-mud school.

Fire axe pictureTo demonstrate what the phrases in question look like, I suggest we catch up with our drug-dealing anti-hero from the last blog, John Dudley, the so-called Snow King and the guy who, last time we met him, miraculously found a fire axe in Dunbad Prison, where he’s currently doing time, then proceeded to bury the axe in his cellmate’s head. Incidentally, you’re about to discover Dudley is still running free, if we can use that expression to talk about someone in prison. The reason the murder by Dudley of his cellmate didn’t lead to severe punitive measures being taken against him by the authorities is that I’m out of ideas for situations and characters with which to conjure up sentences illustrating grammar points, and I needed a guy I could rely on – a guy like John Dudley – to be going about his business as normal. Which adds up to a sad indictment of my imagination. So, without further ado, here come more slivers of action from the Snow King’s sordid life.

Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, the Snow King realised he’d be in deep trouble if the warders caught him with illicit booze again.

The Snow King sat on his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex.

In these example sentences, our participial phrases are Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex. There’s a present participle in each phrase: hiding, smoking and thinking. (I explained how we form present participles in the last blog; scroll down if you want to see the explanation.) Notice how this kind of participial phrase tells us about things happening at the same time as what’s going on in the main clause. While the Snow King is hiding the hooch, he’s realising the depth of the trouble he will find himself in should he get caught with the booze. While the Snow King sits on his bed, he’s smoking and thinking about his ex, who presumably left him for another fella. (I wouldn’t like to be in that guy’s shoes and anywhere near a wood-chopping tool if Dudley gets out of prison.) These sentences are all fine and dandy. The following one isn’t.

Striding across the exercise yard, John sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap. 

John can’t be striding across the exercise yard, sitting down next to Big Phil and passing him coke at same time. What I’ve illustrated here with a sentence that exaggerates the error I’m trying to highlight is what goes wrong when writers try to indicate a sequence of events using participial phrases containing present participles. Unfortunately, sequencing isn’t something these phrases are capable of. Try to get them to show that an action takes place at a particular moment in a series of events and they’re all ‘Sorry, mate, that’s above my pay grade. No can do.’ Past-simple-tense verbs, on the other hand, positively lick the faces of sequences of actions that sentences like the one above fail to describe correctly.

John strode across the exercise yard, sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap. 

Here’s another example of a sentence illustrating the problem I’m talking about, this time with three phrases with present participles stacked up at the end of it:

John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler, tearing the centre spread into small rectangles, placing a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapping up the powder.

I don’t know how John got the keys to whatever office that is, by the way. I suppose it goes to show that if nothing else, the guy’s resourceful and cunning. Anyway, let’s look at what’s gone wrong here. The first two actions – John going through the drawers and finding the magazine – are nicely arranged in sequence, but then our present participles come along and ruin everything. John can’t be going through the drawers and finding the magazine at the same time as tearing the centre spread into rectangles and wrapping cocaine in those rectangles. Nor can he be tearing up the paper, placing the coke on each piece he creates and wrapping up the powder at the same time, since though the guy is resourceful, he’s not some kind of human octopus. Once again, using the past-simple tense would bring clarity where currently there is discord.

John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler. He tore the centre spread into small rectangles, placed a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapped up the powder.

I’m saying here that participial phrases containing present participles can only be used to describe actions that happen at the same time as the action in a main clause, but maybe there is a little bit of wiggle room. There certainly is according to Raymond Murphy, the author of English Grammar in Use. He says if one short action follows another short action, it’s okay to use a participial phrase containing a present participle, and he uses this as an example:

Taking a key out of his pocket, he opened the door.

I have to say I don’t like that sentence much. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but when I read that sentence I try to visualise someone taking a key out of his pocket and opening a door at one and the same time and I can’t, because that’s not possible. However, this is Mr Raymond Murphy talking here, so I have to sit up and listen – or prostrate myself in front of him and listen, because that’s the kind of respect he and his book deserve. English Grammar in Use is a legend within English teaching circles and contains probably the clearest explanations you’ll find of grammar rules formulated for people for whom English is not their first language. (I’m almost tempted to post another book-as-shrine photo, as I did for The Chicago Manual of Style, but the cover of my copy is too crinkled from use to serve as a model.)

Don’t confuse the participial phrases I’m talking about here with a similar construction, having + past participle, which is used specifically for sequencing. (If you need to know what past participles look like, scroll on down.) Here’s an example of having + past participle in action:

Having wrapped ten grams of coke, John made his way to the rec room to deliver five wraps to Tyneside Mac.

The opening phrase, Having wrapped ten grams of coke, is doing good work and indicating that an action happened before the action in the main clause – John going to the rec room. Nice one, having + past participle!

Now to the subject of dangling present participles at the ends of sentences, which I said I’d cover in this instalment. Let’s remind ourselves what danglers are. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – in the case we’re going to talk about, a participial phrase containing a present participle – and the noun it’s supposed to modify. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to. Take a gander at this: 

John looked at the nudie picture, lying on his bed.

This sentence is a little ambiguous, no? It’s not clear whether the intention was to say John is lying on his bed and looking at the nudie picture, or John is looking at the nudie picture that is lying on his bed. Since it was I who wrote the sentence, I can exclusively reveal to you, ladies and gentlemen, that I was imagining myself as an author who meant to say the picture was on the bed. That means lying on his bed is dangling, because it’s not attaching properly to the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to, the nudie picture, and sort of attaching to John instead, but not quite really doing that either. (Maybe it should be defined as a hesitant and indecisive dangling participle.) There’s a simple fix:

John looked at the nudie picture lying on his bed.

If my intention had been to say John was lying on his bed and looking at the picture, which would presumably be on the wall in that case, a good way to rework the sentence would have been:

Lying on his bed, John looked at the nudie picture.

Self-Editing Checklist

1. Check back over your work and establish whether you’re the type of writer who uses participial phrases containing present participles. 

2. If you are, look out for two things. First, make sure you haven’t used participial phrases with present participles to indicate events happening in sequence. Second, make sure the phrases don’t dangle.

3. Rewrite any sentences that have gone wrong.

Photos: © Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, a carrier pigeon, Morse Code and a torch, etc.


Are Your Danglers on Display?

Man in Stocks

Big mistake. Honestly, I don’t know what came over me. There I was, perusing the online edition of The Guardian, looking through the books section, when I chanced upon an interview with Sharon Olds, a poet apparently. (I’d never heard of her and still know nothing about her, for reasons about to become clear.) This was the piece’s intro:

Sharon Olds has the wrong surname. At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice.

Normally I switch off copyediting me when I’m reading for pleasure, but that second sentence activated copyediting me and put him on grammar alert. What we had here, people, was a living, breathing dangler. Not only that, but this baby was big. And so I made the silly mistake of adding a smart-arse comment at the bottom of the article.

So I’m going to have to wait till I’m 70 to see the young woman in Sharon Olds, since that’s what the second sentence of the article says. Will it be worth the wait? I’ll get back about it in 25 years’ time.

I naively imagined the writer of the article, Kate Kellaway, or a Guardian sub-editor would see the comment and amend the second sentence. What actually happened was I got a good pillorying – in a polite Guardian arts pages sort of way, of course. Someone called Cathy replied with:

How boring can some people get? A marvellous interview, some really subtle and complex ideas shining through, and then your response.

Frankly, she had a point. I was being a bit of a bore. Making the comment was out of character for me. I’m not one of those people who think civilization is in jeopardy when I see a misplaced apostrophe on the menu board at the local pub. In my defence I wasn’t drawing attention to something trivial, such as a typo, but to a dangler, front and centre, that made unfortunate, unintended sense. Anyway, it was too late. I’d said what I’d said, and I had to live with the consequences. It wasn’t long before Cathy’s comment had accumulated over 20 recommends, and I felt like a social pariah. It was as if I was languishing in the village stocks, and each recommend was a rotten tomato splatting me in the face. I hit back with:

You’re making the point behind my comment. The problem with bad grammar is that it makes you focus on the grammar and not the content. Some people won’t be able to read past that second sentence. I couldn’t, so I’m never going to know whether it was an interesting piece or not.

But the tomatoes kept splatting me in the face, and next someone using an alias that was a combination of numbers and letters wandered over to have a go at me:

But it doesn’t say what you think it says at all. Failure to understand non-simple sentence structures says more about your failure as a reader than the writer’s failure.

Ouch. Not only was I boring, but I was also failing as a reader, something that, were it true, would be fatal in my line of work, as would an inability to understand non-simple sentence structures, which I’m guessing is a non-simple way of saying complicated sentences. I’m more of a go-for-the-ball-and-not-the-man kind of guy, and I came back with an explanation of the problem:

It doesn’t intend to say what I know it says, more like. What you have at the beginning of the sentence is a dangling modifying phrase. The subject of the sentence, ‘you’, comes after the initial comma, and that’s what the modifying phrase modifies in grammar terms – ‘you’. If you’d like to refute my analysis, please go ahead, but do so in grammar terms. As a professional editor, I ‘succeed’ at reading all the time, thanks.

I braced myself for more criticism and wondered what would happen if the situation spiralled out of control. What if clicking Recommend on Cathy’s comment became the cool thing to do, sweeping the Internet with the viral virility of the ‘Gangnam Style’ video and even spreading to the remote village where I live? If that happened, would the guy with the farm on the corner ever sell me fresh eggs again? Or would he instead pelt me with them the next time I approached him with an empty egg box in hand? 

Fortunately, it was at this point that Billy Mills, a contributor to The Guardian, and a poet and publisher to boot, got my back. 

Spot on; if ‘At 70’ was replaced by ‘Today’ the ambiguity would disappear and everyone would see that it qualified ‘you’, as it is, we know what it means to mean, and so make a mental adjustment.

And once Mr Mills had spoken, the public pelting came to an end. 

So what did I learn from the experience? Well, I’ve returned to my default position of avoiding pointing out these kinds of errors, even if they are big ones. If I was really bothered by the dangler, I should’ve sent a private message about it to the subs’ desk at The Guardian, which was what I wanted to do originally, but because I couldn’t find an email address for the subs, I went ahead and made a comment in public. Kate Kellaway’s article also reminded me how easy it is for writers to go into print with danglers. I should know, because I’ve done so myself. If the online edition of The Times didn’t operate behind a paywall these days, I’d sheepishly provide a link showing an article I wrote a while back in which I erred, too. In the first sentence. What was that about throwing stones and people living in glass houses? I can’t say I remember exactly. 

Danglers are discussed a lot by people offering grammar advice, but I haven’t seen them talked about specifically from the perspective of writing and editing genre fiction – and they need to be. Also, though I’m sure you authors have been listening to the advice out there telling you to avoid writing danglers, you’re not being completely successful in following it, because – believe me – they’re getting through. I would say there are danglers in eight or nine out of every ten manuscripts I see. I sometimes work on novels that have already been copy-edited once or twice, and I usually see danglers in those, too, so these critters have a habit of holding on. 

I suspect that one reason danglers get there in the first place is that they are a feature of spoken English, and there’s a tendency for authors with a conversational style of writing to use them in their fiction without realising. (By the way, has anyone ever picked you up for using a dangler in conversation? No, I didn’t think so. Wait a moment; who said yes? Did someone say yes?) Imagine, for example, a guy called Tony is telling a mate what he did Friday night in Highbury, and he says the following five minutes into the conversation: 

Walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

Euston, we have a dangler. Tony, the person going home by foot, isn’t mentioned where he should be, after the comma – which means the phrase Walking home from the pub is dangling, since strictly speaking the sentence doesn’t tell us who was walking home from the pub. But it sounds like a natural thing to say, no? And we get the intended meaning, even though the syntax is a bit wonky. Look at how wordy the following corrections are in comparison:

As I was walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

Walking home from the pub, I was struck by the fact I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

These sentences are also more formal in register than the original, and they sound like writing rather than chat. All the essential scene-setting information was actually contained in the original opening phrase, Walking home from the pub. The guy who’s listening to Tony knows Tony’s talking about himself, because that’s what he’s been doing for the past five minutes, so who was walking home from the pub doesn’t need to be established again. 

Have I just gone and justified the use of a dangler? I think I have. However, I’m talking about danglers in speech rather than writing, so this discussion isn’t relevant to fiction, right? Well, no, it is. Since dialogue is a big feature of fiction, if the reality is that people speak in danglery sentences, then maybe danglers have a right to make it into print in dialogue. Maybe they should even be allowed in narration in some cases. Perhaps you’re writing a book using first-person point of view and your narrator has a colloquial, conversational way of expressing himself or herself, and danglers are right for that person’s voice. 

It’s at this point that I hold up my hands, smile and say that the decision whether to include danglers in your novel is a creative one for you, the author, and I’m not getting involved. I suspect, however, that most – if not all – of the writers who submit manuscripts with danglers in them simply don’t realise they are there and didn’t consciously decide to include them for creative reasons. You would have to be brave to intentionally allow danglers in your novel, because unless you can engineer a way to make it clear to readers you know you’re using them, you risk losing credibility in the eyes of people like that pedantic middle-aged guy who comments on the Guardian website – though everyone says that dude’s boring and incapable of grasping the non-simple, so maybe you shouldn’t care what he thinks. 

Dangler Dynamics

Before you search your manuscript for danglers, you need to know what they look like. Kate Kellaway’s second sentence is a good starting point, because it betrays a couple of traits frequently shared by sentences containing danglers in both journalism and fiction.

At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice. 

‘At 70’ is a modifying phrase – a prepositional phrase, to be precise – and it’s supposed to be giving information about Olds. But it isn’t doing that. Instead, it’s modifying you, a pronoun referring to the readers of the article. In this case, the thing the modifying phrase should modify, Olds, is given, just not given in the right place; it should come after the comma. If the sentence were rewritten and the opening phrase retained, it would start like this:

At 70, Olds . . .


At 70, she . . .

In this instance it’s not possible to rewrite the sentence that way and get in all the ideas Kellaway wants to. (Try it yourself; you’ll see what I mean.) But that’s not our concern here. Sometimes the noun a dangling phrase is supposed to be modifying isn’t present in the sentence at all. Here’s an example:

At 70 years old, life is good.

This sounds like something someone might say, doesn’t it? It is, however, a dangler. Life isn’t 70 years old; it’s Sharon Olds who is that age – and she’s not mentioned. Life, on the other hand, is billions of years old, apparently. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – At 70 and At 70 years old, in the cases above – and the noun it’s supposed to modify, which is either not where it should be in order to be read as the thing being modified, or simply not present at all. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to.

How I imagine you've been spending the winter.
How I imagine you’ve been spending the winter (posed by models).

I said that Kellaway’s dangler displays classic traits. Well, while you people have been drinking red wine and joking and laughing and frolicking on a sandy beach with a Dalmatian – which is how I imagine you’ve been spending the winter while I’ve been holed up in a cold farmhouse on Gozo without hot water or central heating, wearing a beanie and five layers of woollen clothing – I went the extra mile for you by scouring fiction manuscripts I’ve edited for danglers, stripping out 40 in total and placing them side by side in a separate document. Before I was forced to burn said document in order to provide myself with a fleeting moment of warmth, I analysed the sentences in which the danglers occurred and looked for common features. (Okay, 40 danglers isn’t a huge sample, but I think it’s large enough to allow me to harvest some useful information.) I’m going to share the fruits of that research with you here.

How I've been spending the winter (artist's impression).
How I’ve been spending the winter (artist’s impression).

Sentence Position

Out of the 40, two danglers came at the end of a sentence. (I’m going to put the subject of danglers at the ends of sentences aside for the moment. I’ll cover it in the next blog, since I want to clear up another common issue I see in manuscripts at the same time.) The vast majority of danglers in my sample – 33 of the remaining 38 – were initial modifying phrases followed by a comma followed by . . . Well, it was what they weren’t followed by that was the issue: the noun they were supposed to modify wasn’t there. So, over 80 percent of the danglers in the sample came in sentences with this structure at the beginning:

Initial modifying phrase + comma + something other than the thing that’s supposed to be modified by the modifying phrase

Types of Dangling Phrase

In ten sentences, representing 25 percent of the total number of sentences in the sample, the dangling initial modifying phrase was a prepositional phrase – a phrase beginning with a preposition – similar to Kate Kellaway’s one. Here’s a variation on the theme:

With her shiny hair and gentle voice, you can see the young woman in Sharon Olds.

At and with are common opening prepositions in prepositional phrases that have been stood up by the noun they were supposed to be on a date with. Just over half the danglers in the sample were dangling participles (21 out of 40), and most of these (13) were present participles. Dangling participles are the big-brand danglers that everyone talks about, and my sample demonstrated they do represent a real menace in genre fiction, so let’s take a good look at them. But first I’d better go back a step, since some writers won’t be familiar with what participles look like.

There are two types of participles: past participles and present participles. Let’s deal with the first kind first. If you study a chart for English verbs of the kind used for teaching English to foreigners, you will see that each verb has three forms given: the infinitive, the past-simple-tense form, and the past participle. For example: 

to riot, rioted, rioted 

Notice the past participle of this particular verb has an -ed ending. Most past participles do, but some don’t – for example, known, fallen and built. Here are a couple of sentences that begin with past participles:

Built in 1967, Dunbad Prison was a concrete monstrosity.

Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King, John Dudley was the cons’ drugs dealer of choice.

Built in 1967 and Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King are called participial phrases. Let’s intentionally create a dangler using the first sentence as our raw material.

Built in 1967, no one would choose to do time in the concrete monstrosity that was Dunbad Prison.

The sentence is saying that no one was built in 1967, which doesn’t make sense. The thing that was built in 1967, Dunbad Prison, is adrift from its correct position, after the comma.

The results of my little research venture tentatively suggest that dangling past participles like the one above are less common in the genre fiction I edit than are dangling present participles. I imagine that’s because the use of past participles is characteristic of an information-giving style of writing that’s more the norm in, say, journalism. Anyway, let’s move on to looking at present participles. Here’s a correctly formed sentence that starts with a participial phrase with a present participle in it: 

Raising the fire axe high above his head, John blocked out any thoughts about the consequences of what he was about to do to his cellmate.

Raising is our present participle. It’s formed by adding -ing to the bare infinitive form of the verb – that’s the infinitive without to. (Here’s the math, as it were: to raise minus to equals raise, plus -ing equals raising, with the e erased.) If you’re scratching your head and wondering how raising can be called a present participle when it’s being used here to talk about something that supposedly happened in the past, keep scratching that head. Present participles can be used to talk about past, present and future events, as can past participles. Both terms are a little misleading, but you’ve got to work with what you’re given, even if that makes everything more non-simple than it might otherwise be. Here’s a danglerfication, as it were, of our example sentence:

Raising the fire axe high above his head, John’s thoughts were everywhere but on the consequences of what he was about to do.

That can’t be right, since John raised the axe above his head, not his thoughts. The guy may be a psycho and about to murder his cellmate – where did he find a fire axe in prison, by the way? Who writes this stuff? – but he’s not a psychic psycho with a talent for psychokinesis. Though a preposition will always be the first word in a prepositional phrase, a participle won’t always be the first word in a participial phrase. The following is a participial phrase, too, for instance:

While raising the fire axe high above his head . . .

Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler I

You shouldn’t waste time and energy subjecting gerunds to interrogation in the hope of exposing them as dangling present participles; gerunds don’t dangle. The reason you might find yourself asking gerunds searching questions about their status is that both present participles and gerunds have the same spelling. The difference between them is in function: gerunds work as nouns. Look at this:

Murdering fellow prisoners diminishes your chances of getting parole.

Murdering is our gerund and it heads a gerund phrase, Murdering fellow prisoners, that is the subject of the sentence. A way to distinguish between present participles on the one hand, and lone gerunds and gerunds that head gerund phrases on the other, is to replace the word ending in -ing in question with it, ignore the extra words in the cases where you are probing what might be a gerund phrase, and see if what you’re left with makes sense. If it does, then you’ve struck a gerund. For instance, in the example above we end up with:

It diminishes your chances of getting parole.

Nothing to see here, then, and we can move along.

Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler II

There’s a class of participles called absolute participles, and these can’t dangle. You are more likely to see absolute participles in dry forms of writing, such as news reports, corporate writing and academic texts, than you are in fiction, but they do crop up. Here are some examples of absolute participles: assuming, allowing, concerning, considering, given and providing. Here are a couple in action:

Considering how poorly equipped Dunbad Prison is to meet the needs of a modern penal system, it is scandalous that the government continues to support the establishment.

Given the high rate of recidivism among prisoners who serve custodial sentences at institutions such as Dunbad Prison, the question naturally arises, does prison work?

Well, I hope I haven’t managed to over-non-simplify the subject. There are other kinds of danglers you should look out for – dangling infinitives and dangling appositives, for example – but I’ve covered what I believe are the most common ones in fiction. 

Right, then. Next on the agenda for me: what else can I burn to provide heat? Actually, you know what? Now that I’m subscribing to Oxford Dictionaries Online, that copy of the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelf does suddenly look redundant and more like a heat-giving brick of fuel than a source of spellings and definitions . . .

Self-Editing Checklist

1. Make a creative decision about whether you should allow danglers in dialogue and even, perhaps, narration. 

2. Should you decide not to include danglers, incorporate dangler patrols into your self-editing process.

3. Use the information I’ve given – and will give in my next blog – to spot them. Be on high alert when you come across a sentence that starts with a prepositional phrase or a participial phrase. Often the thing it modifies should come after the first comma, so be on the look out in particular for the following structures at the beginnings of sentences: 

prepositional phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify

participial phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify

4. Don’t concern yourself with gerunds and absolute participles. They can’t dangle.

5. Whenever you do come across a dangler, rewrite the sentence in which it occurs. I’m not going to try to tell you how to do that. You’re the artist in this relationship. Just make sure you don’t give birth to another bouncing dangler baby in the process, okay?

Assuming I continue to survive the cold this winter, I’ll post the next part of this blog in about ten days. Should there be a subject that bugs you while you’re self-editing your novel, send me a message with details. I may be able to cover the topic in a future post.

Photos: © Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, an Enigma machine, body language, etc.