Hanging yourself on a hanging phrase

Big enough to sleep in, Mr Boddingham believes he might just have a claim on a new world record.

I’m thinking of starting a collection of similar gems I find in places that should know better. This one was in today’s paper. Shame on them! It wasn’t poor Mr Boddingham who was big enough to sleep in, but a giant slipper he’d been sent by mistake.

And what about this one? With his toupee awry, the cat hissed at his owner and fled.

If you write something like this, then true, a lot of people won’t notice. They’ll make the mental adjustment to work out what you meant. But as Abraham Lincoln said, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Hanging phrases create a nonsense, and there’ll be enough people rolling around in unseemly mirth to have a serious impact on your writing credibility.

In the old days – good or bad depending on your point of view – kids were taught grammar at school, and back then, they’d have learned that a phrase is a group of words constituting an element in a sentence. If you want to know the complete ins and outs of phrases, you can check here, but for our purposes, what you need to know is that a phrase can’t stand on its own. It’s not the full quid, because it doesn’t contain both a subject (the doer of a sentence) and a finite verb (the action the subject takes). So like all good parasites, it attaches itself to the nearest host (noun or verb) and hopes for the best. The worst happens when its proper host has gone AWOL.

Having tied his shoelace, the traffic had built up.

Perhaps I’ve missed a myriad of life’s little treats, but I’ve never seen traffic tying a shoelace. But what choice did the phrase (having tied his shoelace) have? The traffic was the only available subject. The man doing the tying had disappeared.

Hanging phrases are also known as hanging or dangling participles, and hanging (or dangling) modifiers, depending on their structure and purpose. To know more about these sneaky little suckers, you can read this. It’s entertaining as well as instructive.

The moral is that whatever you write, purge it of hanging phrases before it sees the light of day. They can drill holes in your manuscript faster than white ants in a house frame.

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