These are two quotes from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

Being a heavy stick the dog has held it tightly by the middle and the marks of his teeth are very plainly visible.

(Ch. 1, Holmes studies Dr. Mortimer's stick.)

Being himself childless, it was his openly expressed desire that the whole countryside should, within his own lifetime, profit by his good fortune

(Ch. 2, Devon County Chronicle article about the death of Sir Charles Baskerville.)

In both sentences the word "Being" does not refer to the subject of the main sentence: the dog is not a heavy stick, and it is not childless.

A similar structure in Russian is considered a grave grammatical mistake ("Подъезжая к станции, с меня слетела шляпа", lit "driving up to the station, my hat flew off", while it was not the hat that was driving up to the station). So, are the sentences above grammatically correct in English?

Regarding the first sentence, one may argue that it was said by Holmes in the middle of his thoughts, and so he could have indeed said something not grammatically correct. But the second sentence is (in-universe) a quotation from a newspaper, where mistakes should not appear...

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    Being someone who prefers mornings to night, getting up at 5 AM is not unpleasant.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 20, 2021 at 10:49
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    The "being" in the examples could be substituted by as; "As the stick was heavy..., As he himself was childless..., As someone who...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 20, 2021 at 10:54
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    Being a student of Holmesiana, I can tell you that Arthur Conan Doyle was a notoriously sloppy writer in some ways, so it's entirely possible these are mistakes by the author, which the editors did not correct for some reason.
    – stangdon
    Dec 20, 2021 at 12:45
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    I would definitely call the first one a mistake, as it sounds like the dog is a heavy stick. The second one is immediately understandable and natural sounding, though some prescriptivists might tut-tut about it.
    – gotube
    Dec 20, 2021 at 22:06
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    The first example is just missing a comma. The dog is gripping tightly because the stick is heavy.
    – Preston
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:19

3 Answers 3


You are referring to a "dangling modifier" (a species of "misplaced modifier") and yes, many writers, teachers, and grammar books tell us it is an error. But it is not a grammatical error. I mean this in the sense that what we have been taught to think about "dangling modifiers" does not depend on grammatical issues like syntax and inflexion. Rather, the question is semantic ambiguity. We ask whether things mean what we intend for them to mean. That's a different matter entirely.

We are taught in school that the implied subject of a participial phrase is usually the nearest noun phrase, particularly if it is the grammatical subject of the adjacent clause.

But there is no grammatical reason for thinking so. We believe it because someone told us. Or, if we did not pay attention in school, we don't believe it and do not care and the issue almost never creates any confusion at all.

We find a similar relationship with pronouns and their referents. We are often taught in school that the referent of a pronoun is the nearest noun phrase, especially the nearest noun phrase to the left of the pronoun. But a simple comparison shows that this is not the case.

  1. I cannot fit the trombone into the suitcase because it is too big.

  2. I cannot fit the trombone into the suitcase because it is too small.

Notice that both sentences are constructed exactly the same. But the referent of the pronoun it in Sentence 1 is trombone, while the referent in Sentence 2 is suitcase. Clearly, the grammar is not sufficient to help us understand the meaning of each pronoun. We must look to the larger context—not simply to the meaning of big and small but also to our understanding of the way that suitcases work.

We are accustomed to working out semantic relationships like this unconsciously.

So it is with participial modifiers. A reader would have to be pretty obtuse not to understand the meaning of the childless sentence. In an expression such as it was his desire, the pronoun it can have no referent at all (we call it a "dummy subject"), so we understand that it cannot refer to something childless. The pronoun his and the surrounding context make the intended meaning clear enough.

Native speakers are never confused by sentences like this. In fact, you'd have to explain it in a lot of detail to make most native speakers understand why you thought there was an error in the first place.

The other example is slightly different. Taken out of context, it is somewhat amusing. "Ho ho," one thinks. "You've called the dog a stick!" Books about grammar and style love to use sentences like this as examples of "bad grammar."

But if we look at the larger context, we can see why the author did not see a problem, and why his editors did not see one either:

“And the dog?”

“Has been in the habit of carrying this stick behind his master. Being a heavy stick the dog has held it tightly by the middle . . ."

Obviously, the dog is not a stick. The dog is holding the stick, and the stick is heavy. You and I belong to a very small circle of people who notice this sort of thing. The rest of the world does not bat an eye.

To sum all of this up:

  1. A so-called "dangling participle" is not a grammatical error. It is a label we give to a participial phrase that refers to a topic that is not where our grammar teachers told us to expect it.

  2. In reality, listeners and readers are almost never confused by a "dangling participle." The context almost always makes the meaning clear, much as context almost always makes clear the exact meaning of a pronoun.

  3. If your writing is being graded by a very strict instructor, you should probably take care not to write a "dangling participle." Although teachers are quite happy believing that the meaning of a pronoun depends on factors that go beyond its position in a sentence, they often make no such allowance for a participial phrase.

  4. In any case, you should always watch out for genuine ambiguities.

  5. If someone points out a "dangling participle" in your speech, you should bite them or hit them with a stick.

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    +1 for including the text that precedes "Being the stick ...". That stick ends the previous sentence, which makes the modifier dangle less. The fact that it's dialog and not exposition matters too. Dec 20, 2021 at 15:32
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    Although listeners and readers can work it out, it typically takes a little more thought and the sentence may seem weird, because the reference is not the default that's expected. So writing is somewhat "better" if you avoid dangling participles and ambiguous pronouns. It's similar to the reason you should avoid "garden path" sentences.
    – Barmar
    Dec 20, 2021 at 23:19
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    Thank you for the passage in context. Although I had read Hound of the Baskervilles many years ago, I hadn’t remembered this particular sentence, and when I saw it by itself, it did sound wrong to me. In context, it’s clearer.
    – Davislor
    Dec 21, 2021 at 0:11
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    @Acccumulation: I do not understand the difference between "producing a sentence that is grammatically incorrect" and "not using grammar correctly." To my mind, those two phrases describe the exact same thing.
    – Kevin
    Dec 21, 2021 at 3:15
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    @Kevin "Let's eat Grandma" is grammatically correct, but unless you intend to propose the consumption of your grandmother, it's not using grammar correctly. Dec 21, 2021 at 8:20

Being a lumbered sentence, it's missing a comma. Apart from that, it's awkward, but valid.


The sentences that you have pointed out are classic examples of misplaced modifiers.

A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is in the wrong location. On any standard exam, these would be incorrect grammar.

  • You might be thinking of "ambiguous antecedent". The modifiers in the dog sentence are "heavy", "tightly", and "plainly", and I don't think any of those are misplaced. Maybe "tightly" but even there if there's a problem it's with the pronoun and not the adverb.
    – nasch
    Dec 23, 2021 at 16:24

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