I’m not particularly against dangling participles, unlike most prescriptivists, who find few things more amusing than a misplaced modifier:
“Here’s an example: Walking along the beach, the sun rose majestically over the ocean. Now, that’s a nice trick. This sentence has the sun walking along the beach!”
This willingness to accept dangling participles, I suspect, is because I am a psycholinguist. As a psycholinguist, I’m more concerned with how comprehensible a sentence is than with how precisely linked the modifiers are. I see no real problem with the above example, because walking along the beach clearly doesn’t modify the sun, and it’s pretty obvious that the intended antecedent is the speaker, or whoever has recently been discussed in the discourse.
That said, there are certain situations where dangling participles really are downright confusing, confounding, or at least distracting. For instance, a recent Snopes article explains the story of Michael Monsoor, the second-most recent recipient of the Medal of Honor, who jumped on a grenade to save his fellow SEALs. It’s a well-deserved honor for a heroic action, but, being a linguist I was distracted by this pair of sentences in the Navy’s Summary of Action:
“He was located closest to the egress route out of the sniper hide-sight watching for enemy activity through a tactical periscope over the parapet wall. While vigilantly watching for enemy activity, an enemy fighter hurled a hand grenade onto the roof from an unseen location.”
This is something of a train wreck. The dangling participle at the start of the second sentence awkwardly repeats the end of the first sentence, even re-using the same phrase. But worse, it’s completely unclear who the dangling participle is supposed to refer to. Both Petty Officer Monsoor and the enemy fighter are reasonable referents for the participle; either could have been watching for their enemies. Under the assumption that enemy always refers to the non-Americans, and using the repetition from the previous sentence, we can infer that the participle probably describes Petty Officer Monsoor. But we can’t be sure. This is realistically ambiguous, unlike the “sun walking on the beach” example.
What’s odd is that, while the Summary of Action has this tangled mess, the official citation for the Medal says the same thing quite clearly:
“WHILE THE SEALS VIGILANTLY WATCHED FOR ENEMY ACTIVITY, AN INSURGENT THREW A HAND GRENADE FROM AN UNSEEN LOCATION, WHICH BOUNCED OFF PETTY OFFICER MONSOOR’S CHEST AND LANDED IN FRONT OF HIM.”
Now there’s a good example of how to rewrite a confusing dangling participle sentence. The dangling participle has been converted to a temporal phrase that can only modify the sentence as a whole. Much better, free of any important ambiguity, and a more fitting description of the action. This is the sort of situation that prescriptivists ought to be citing when they talk about the horrors of dangling participles — not silly potential ambiguities that no reasonable reader would misinterpret, but real, true, and problematic ambiguities. Instead, by focusing on acceptably misplaced modifiers, prescriptivists’s complaints and advice come across full of sound and fury, but largely ignorable.