January 10, 2014

Editing Tip: Make Your Dangling Participles Stick Out Like a Sore Thumb

Do sneaky little dangling participles crop up in your manuscript and make your characters do multiple things at once in a physically impossible or unintentionally hilarious manner? Or are you an editor working with a dangle-challenged author? Then you're going to love this trick.

If you have a deep-seated problem with dangling participles and use them even more abundantly than what we're talking about today, you'll probably want to stick with a simpler search string like "ing"; but today we're going to hitch up our techie big-girl panties and use a regular expression.

Hang in there with me. It's way more magical than it sounds.

Back up your file before you try any tricksy tricks with Find & Replace. Find & Replace has the power to cause a truckload of grief. In fact, Find & Replace probably should come with a warning that says, "Abandon hope, all ye who go here."

OK, so you're all saved and backed up. And you want to use Find & Replace to highlight every single instance of a paragraph break followed by a dangling participle. Right? Of course you do.

For this extremely specific search to work, you're going to need to do some preparation to get rid of any extraneous characters that would prevent the search from succeeding. Do the following steps in order (really, you should be doing these steps for every manuscript anyway):

  • If you've used tabs to indent your paragraphs, you'll need to get rid of them. Use Find and Replace to replace every tab character with a space character. In the Find field, type (without the quotation marks) "^t"—a caret and a t. In the Replace field, type a space. Hit Replace All. Then select all the text in your manuscript and use Word's indent feature to add a half-inch indent to the first line of each paragraph. You'll want to remove the indent from all centered text, headings, etc. afterward.
  • You need to eliminate all extra spaces. Use Find & Replace to find all occurrences of two consecutive spaces and replace them with one space. Repeat this step until there are no more occurrences of two spaces.
  • You need to eliminate all extra spaces at the beginning and end of each paragraph. In the Find field, type (without the quotation marks) "^p "—a caret, a p, and a space; in the Replace field, type just (without the quotation marks) "^p"—a caret and a p. Click Replace All. Then repeat this step using (without the quotation marks) " ^p"—a space, a caret, and a p.
  • You need to eliminate all manual line breaks that should be paragraph breaks. Note that if you've used some line breaks deliberately, you'll want to avoid using Replace All for this step (just search for the breaks one at a time and keep the ones you need). In the Find field, type (without the quotation marks) "^l"—a caret and an l. In the Replace field, type (without the quotation marks) "^p"—a caret and a p.
Are you ready for the exciting part?

Here's how to highlight those pesky dangling participles at the beginnings of your paragraphs:
  • In the Find field, type (without the quotation marks) "^13([A-Za-z]@ing>)[^32,^44]" (this tells Word to look for a paragraph break, followed by a series of letters, followed by ing at the end of a word, followed by a space or a comma; using the codes for space and comma isn't strictly necessary but prevents the search from turning up one-word sentences or hyphenated words that we're not interested in). Double- and triple-check this step to make sure the regular expression is exactly correct. Make sure you haven't used any spaces.
  • In the Replace field, type (without the quotation marks) "^&" (this tells Word that you'll be replacing what it found with... exactly what it found; omitting this bit will cause Word to crash or possibly delete every participle that occurs at the beginning of a paragraph, or perhaps your computer will implode). Make sure you haven't used any spaces.
  • With your cursor still in the Replace field, click Format and then click Highlight. If you can't see the Format button, just click the More button.
  • Now click the little box beside "Use wildcards" so there's a check in the box.
  • Hit Save one more time just to be extra, extra safe.
  • Click Replace All.
Bam! Every ing word at the beginning of a paragraph is highlighted. It's magical, isn't it?

If you see more than one highlight every page or so, you'll want to do some tweaking of your sentence structure.

Happy editing! :)

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