Writing tip: Beware the floating starter phrase

Writing tip: Beware the floating starter phrase.

Sometimes you'll start a sentence with a descriptive phrase, for example:
Sprinkled with chives, [...]
Smiling broadly, [...] .

What comes after the starter phrase and the comma? Make sure it's the same thing that the phrase describes:

Sprinkled with chives, cold potatoes are loved by kids.

Otherwise you risk writing a very silly sentence. The starter phrase floats loose, unattached to its real subject. For example:

WRONG: Sprinkled with chives, kids love cold potatoes.

Starter phrases often use words ending in -ed or -ing:
sprinkled, worried, married, smiling, thinking, dozing, walking

These are parts of a verb. Just like complete verbs, they should be placed close to their subject. Don't let them float apart.

RIGHT: Smiling broadly, the CEO signed the contract.
WRONG: Smiling broadly, the contract was signed by the CEO.

Now expand this rule
You have learned the easy part. But wait, there's more! Stick any descriptive phrase close to the thing it describes, to make sure the meaning is obvious.

  • The phrase might not include an -ed or -ing word.
  • It might not be at the start of a sentence.

If in doubt, just rewrite the sentence. Don't struggle with grammar: say what you need to say, clearly and simply. Sometimes a sentence can be grammatically correct—and yet the meaning is not quite clear.

UNCLEAR: I prefer the kidney potato, as a chef.
CLEAR: As a chef, I prefer the kidney potato.

This writing tip is one of many in our Painless Grammar course.

1 comment

Oct 12, 2011 • Posted by Christine

Good explanation, thanks. You often see the mistaken use in the newspaper. Miss McGahey, my English teacher in my last year at Avonside many years ago, made us very aware of this rule, using the example “Driving down the road, the gardens looked lovely”. The ridiculous images that arise from its incorrect use make you wonder how anyone could get it wrong. But they do, in droves.

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