Let's build off the ideas in my last post about present participial phrases and how to use them. In that post, we were mostly talking about placement issues. (Modifiers go next to the words they modify, right? Right.)
This time, let's take a look at a common mistake made with present participial phrases that signify an underlying weakness in the main clause rather than a technical problem with the participial phrase. Take a look at this sample sentence.
She danced alone in the empty ballroom, twirling and jumping as if nobody could see her.
What Is a Modifier?
We've already made the point that present participial phrases are modifiers which either function as adjectives (modifying a single noun) or as cumulative modifiers (modifying a clause in its entirety). But what about the present participial phrase in our sample sentence above? What, exactly does it modify?
1. to restrict the meaning of a grammatical construction
2. to make minor changes in
3. to make basic or fundamental changes in, often to give a new orientation to or to serve a new end
Modifiers change the meaning of existing words or groups of words. Those changes can be big or small, but they are still changes.
So here's where we run into our problem. Sometimes a main clause is so inherently weak that a writer instinctively knows it needs more oomph, but instead of fixing the weak main clause, they tack on a present participial phrase that restates the main clause without really modifying it.
alone in the ballroom = as if nobody could see her
If she's alone in the ballroom, presumably nobody can see her. Unless they can see through walls? Or have some kind of hidden cameras? But then the sentence should be altered to reflect that.
She danced alone in the ballroom, heedless of the tiny security cameras mounted along the musicians' gallery.
Heedless of the tiny security cameras mounted along the musicians' gallery, she danced alone in the ballroom.
Now the modifying phrase adds a new dimension to the sentence rather than just restating the main clause.
For that matter, twirling and jumping really just restate danced. They're more specific and vibrant than danced, but danced is a perfectly respectable verb. I'm not sure that it needs that kind of restatement. Isn't twirling and jumping more or less implied in the act of dancing? Hmm.
In any event, we see sentences like that all the time, and the usual fix is to cut ruthlessly to eliminate the repetitions. Pick the action word that has more precision and the noun with more built-in description, and dump the rest.
She fell to the ground, dropping suddenly onto the hard earth
She dropped suddenly onto the hard earth.
(And we might cut the adverb while we're at it.)