Grammar instruction in public schools has, for the most part, gone the way of the dinosaurs (bye, Felicia!), but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to know it for the SAT Multiple Choice Writing section (gulp). Luckily, it’s surprisingly easy to learn what to look for in this section of the exam. For example, even though we may no longer discuss participial phrases, phrases that begin with the past or present participle form of a verb, doesn’t mean we can’t learn to spot a dangling modifier. Back up—a who in the what? Let’s backtrack. The present participle of a verb is simply formed by adding –ing to the base form of a verb but is different from a gerund; the past participle is usually formed by adding –ed or, in some cases, -en. These forms of verbs often set apart word groups that are functioning as an adjective in the sentence:
Covered in white, my dog Wendy was obviously the culprit behind the shredded toilet paper.
When we begin a sentence with a participial phrase, we set the phrase apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma, and whatever comes after that comma, our subject, must be the noun that the participial phrase is describing (again, these phrases most often play the role of adjectives, and adjectives describe nouns). If we fail to properly identify the noun that our phrase is describing, the result is a dangling modifier:
Filled with rich nougat, Dane enjoyed the surprisingly filling candy bar.
Unless Dane’s internal organs are composed of a French confection made from sugar and whipped egg whites, the participial phrase in the previous sentence was probably supposed to modify the candy bar (Filled with rich nougat, the candy bar Dane enjoyed was surprisingly filling).
Pro Tip: Eliminate any answer choices that form dangling modifiers:
Selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1990, over 719 hours in space were spent by Dr. Ellen Ochoa on three flights by 2001.
over 719 hours in space were spent by Dr. Ellen Ochoa on three flights by 2001
by 2001, and on three flights, Dr. Ellen Ochoa spent over 719 hours in space
three flights and 719 hours were spent by Dr. Ellen Ochoa in space by 2001
D) Dr. Ellen Ochoa, by 2001 spending over 719 hours in space on three flights
E) Dr. Ellen Ochoa had spent over 719 hours in space on three flights by 2001
Because the fixed (not underlined) portion of the sentence is a participial phrase, we know that our answer choice, which begins right after the comma following said phrase, must begin with the noun the phrase “Selected as an astronaut in 1990” describes. Therefore, we can eliminate choices A, B, and C immediately. Choice E is the correct answer here because it alleviates the dangling modifier that is present in the current sentence and is an independent clause. Answer choice D contains no predicate verb; the present participle spending sets off another participial phrase.