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Participial Phrases? C’mon, You Made that Up

February 6, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 25, 2011

I promise they’re real, these creatures called participial phrases. And I’m willing to bet you’ve used them many times in your writing and in your speaking.

I wanted to talk about them now because I’ve recently read a succession of manuscripts in which they’ve been used, but not used correctly. I most often find participial phrases used without commas or constructed so that two actions look as though they’re performed concurrently, even though with the particular sentence construction, such would be impossible.

A few examples to familiarize yourself with these oddly named phrases—

Walking to the lake, Fred imagined making the perfect dive.

Lysette, saddened by her dog’s death, vowed to never own another pet.

The twins, hoping for candy, received baked potatoes instead.

The twins, determined to prevail, begged for chocolate.

Jane declared that love was more than a feeling, hoping desperately that her words were true.

They look familiar, these participial phrases, don’t they?

We use them often. They’re modifiers of nouns and pronouns. Yet, they aren’t one-word modifiers as other adjectives are. They’re phrases—containing either a past or present participle (a verb form)—that modify a noun or pronoun. The weight they carry in the sentence is secondary to the main clause. That is, the information conveyed by a participial phrase is not the main thrust of the sentence.

In the first example, walking to the lake modifies the noun Fred. Walking is a present participle—it promotes the image that what Fred is doing is ongoing. (Present participles always end in -ing.) The participial phrase consists of the entire phrase, not only the present participle.

In the second example, saddened by her dog’s death modifies Lysette. Saddened is a past participle. Using a past participle rather than a present one shows that the action was performed in the past and has been completed. (Regular past participles are created by adding -ed to the present form of the verb. Irregular past participles, however, are not guided by a rule. If you don’t know the past participle of a verb, you can look up the verb in a dictionary. Wear, dive, and go have irregular past participles—worn, dived and dove, and gone.)

Participial phrases can include either past or present participles or both.

London’s most notorious jewel thief, tired and hoping to rest, raced the streets ahead of Inspector Andersen.


You might recognize the format for participial phrases from advice about dangling modifiers. What is the modifier that dangles? It’s a participial phrase.

Dangling Modifiers
Participial phrases are left dangling when the noun or pronoun they actually modify isn’t the one that should be modified in order for the sentence to make sense. It happens when the sentence construction connects the wrong words. Typically, in a dangling modifier, the participial phrase should be modifying the subject of the sentence but seems to modify something else instead. The following are examples of dangling modifiers. (This construction is incorrect.)

Tripping over her shoes, the loose laces gave Jane a tumble. X

Eating pineapple, the boy’s chin dripped juice. X

Not prepared for it, the exam proved tough. X

Based on the participial phrase, Jane should be the subject of the first sentence. But the loose laces have taken over Jane’s spot. Rewrite the sentence—Tripping over her shoes, Jane took a tumble.

In the second sentence, the boy, not his chin, was eating pineapple. So—Eating pineapple, the boy dripped juice down his chin. Or better—Juice dripped down the boy’s chin while he ate pineapple.

In the third example, the sentence says the exam, rather than a person, was not prepared for it (it being the exam itself, surely an impossibility). In this example, as with the second, the correct subject isn’t in the wrong place—the correct subject isn’t even in the sentence. Correct the sentence by adding a subject—Not prepared for the test, Tobey had a hard time with it. Or, change the construction of the sentence—The exam proved tough for those not prepared for it.

Be especially careful with participial phrases and passive voice.

Gesturing and mugging for the camera, comical faces were made by the children. X

This says the comical faces were gesturing and mugging. This can easily be corrected by changing the sentence to, Gesturing and mugging for the camera, the children made comical faces. Or, Comical faces were made by the children gesturing and mugging for the camera. (Note the absence of a comma.)

Participial phrases are left dangling when the noun or pronoun they’re intended to modify isn’t what ends up being modified because of word order or sentence construction or because the noun or pronoun is never stated.

Participial phrases can go at the beginning, at the middle, or at the end position of sentences. Separate them from the main clause of the sentence with a comma (unless they’re positioned at the end of a sentence AND come immediately after the noun they modify, OR the phrase is a restrictive one (The man hoping to leave was my brother).

  • If the participial phrase comes before the main clause, put a comma after the participial phrase
  • If the participial phrase comes in the middle of the sentence, the phrase requires commas both before and after it
  • If the participial phrase comes after the main clause, put a comma before the participial phrase

Participial phrases are clearest when they are close to the noun or pronoun they modify. The impact of the sentence is also often strongest when the modifier and noun are close.

Participial phrase with past participle in different positions in the sentence

Worried about his sister, Maxwell paced from front door to kitchen.

Maxwell, worried about his sister, paced from front door to kitchen.

Maxwell paced from front door to kitchen, worried about his sister.

Participial phrase with present participle in different positions in the sentence

Racing up the steps, Dan planned his revenge.

Dan, racing up the steps, planned his revenge.

Dan planned his revenge, racing up the steps.

Participial phrase modifying a noun other than the subject

Tilda kicked the man smiling joyfully.

Smiling joyfully modifies the man, not Tilda. There is no comma because the participial phrase is in the end position of the sentence and it modifies the noun immediately preceding it. If there were a comma—Tilda kicked the man, smiling joyfully—then Tilda would be the one smiling joyfully.

This is where I often find confusion with comma use; the comma is missing (when it shouldn’t be) from sentences where the participial phrase follows the main clause and the participial phrase modifies the subject rather than another noun.

Dan planned his revenge racing up the steps. X

Maxwell paced from the front door to the kitchen worried about his sister. X

A comma is required between revenge and racing since racing up the steps modifies not revenge, but Dan. Adding the to the second sentence shows the nonsensical meaning possible when commas aren’t used to separate the participial phrase from the main clause—this construction says the kitchen is worried about his sister.

Only omit the comma when the noun immediately preceding the phrase is the one being modified (and there are no other elements before or after the participial phrase) or the phrase is used in a restrictive sense.

Note, however, the comma use here—Tilda kicked the man smiling joyfully, hoping to break his knee. Hoping to break his knee is a second participial phrase, one that modifies Tilda. A comma is necessary to separate it from the man smiling joyfully since it does not modify him. Tilda, both smiling and hoping, could do this—Smiling joyfully, Tilda kicked the man, hoping to break his knee.

The timing of events can be a problem with participial phrases. That is, you need to be sure the subject of the sentence can perform the action of the main verb and the action of the participial phrase at the same time if you haven’t added clarifying words that indicate they happen at different times.

Running down the street, Billy raced into the grocery store. X

Frances, kicking her attacker, whirled around and ran for safety. X

Billy can’t run down the street and race into the grocery store at the same time, as the first sentence claims. A simple correction—After running down the street, Billy raced into the grocery store.

In the second sentence, Frances can’t kick at the same time she whirls and runs for safety. Correction—After kicking her attacker, Frances whirled around and ran for safety. Or—Frances kicked her attacker, whirled around, and ran for safety.


Participial phrases are one option for varying sentence construction, for giving sentences a different flavor. Their use, however, requires that the writer pay attention to what the sentence actually says.
Remember the basics—

  • Use commas to separate participial phrases from the main clause of the sentence
  • Watch out for dangling modifiers
  • Be aware of the timing of events—can they happen concurrently or do you need to add words to make them successive events instead?



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Definitions, Grammar & Punctuation

16 Responses to “Participial Phrases? C’mon, You Made that Up”

  1. julielle says:

    is a realy good the information you need to add more exercises !!!!1:D

  2. Julielle, I hadn’t considered exercises. That may be something for the future . . .

  3. darelle says:

    I understand the participle phrase order may be important for timed events but does the position of the phrase have any other influence over the meaning in the sentence?
    For instance what is the subtle difference between:

    ‘Worried about his sister, Maxwell paced from front door to kitchen.’

    ‘Maxwell, worried about his sister, paced from front door to kitchen.’?

    They are both correct. Is there a difference to the reader with regard to the message received?

  4. Darelle, in general meaning, there’s no difference; the same info is being communicated.

    There are differences in emphasis and rhythm, however. And the different word order allows a writer to add variety; you wouldn’t always want the same sentence constructions.

    Also, the matter of emphasis or focus may be important and help you decide on the order.

    If you want to emphasize Maxwell’s worry, put worried first. If, however, you’ve been writing about several characters or you’re beginning a new scene, the fact that we’re focusing on Maxwell and not anyone else might be the most important element and you’ll want to start with his name.

    With meaning the same, consider how the phrasing sounds, how it looks on the page, and what emphasis is needed, if any.

    Thanks for the question; I’m sure others wondered the same thing.

  5. jk says:

    I am honored to visit your blog, so that I can have a chance to tell you something about what i wonder with regard to participial phrases.

    Based on information collected in the survey, many office employees are happier working in a small team than in a large one.

    I wonder if “working in a small taem than ~” is Participial Phrases, and if so, comma seems to be needed between happier and working.

    In fact, I think that working is concerned with a gerund phrase, but I am not sure of it because preposition doesn’t exist between happier and working.

    I would appreciate it if you answerd the question.

    • JK, working in a small team is indeed a gerund phrase in this sentence. It functions as a subject complement. This sentence doesn’t say that the employees are working, only that working as a team is something that is done.

      You mentioned a preposition, but a gerund as the object of a preposition is only one use of a gerund. They can operate as subjects, direct objects, and subject complements as well.

      I hope that helps.

  6. Irene says:

    Dear Beth,
    Thank you for this article, much of use, indeed.
    Anyway, I’d like to know what sources (grammar books) you have used for it.

    Thank you very much,

    • Irene, I’m glad the information was useful. I couldn’t tell you what resources I used for references for this article—four years is a long time. I’m sure I used multiple sources online as well as books. As for the books, The Chicago Manual of Style is always a good one. I also often refer to Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct. I also have plenty of grammar books including A Grammar Book for You and I…oops and Me, Whose Grammar Book is This Anyway?

      I have lots and lots of books on writing, any of which may contain tidbits on grammar and punctuation.

      Are you looking for anything in particular?

  7. Paul says:

    Interesting and informative article, Beth. Can participles function as reduced adverbials, though and thus be restrictive not requiring a comma when placed at the end of the sentence and not directly after the subject / object being modified?

    Consider the sentences below:

    1. John came in offering advice. (“Offering advice” is a participle phrase but is restrictive as, although “John came in” could be a sentence it does not make sense in this context. What is the “offering advice here? Another way to say it would be: “John came in to offer advice”, which is clearly restrictive.)

    2. I fell down injuring myself. (“Injuring myself seems to refer to falling down. We would not say I, injuring myself, fell down.)

    3. I fell asleep reading a book. (“Reading a book” seems to refer to fell asleep = I fell asleep while reading a book.)

    4. He stood by the window singing a song. (“Singing a song” appears to refer to stood = stood while singing a song = implied adverbial.)

    5. He ran out of the house crying. (Although, here you can argue that without the comma “crying” can refer to a house, with a comma the sentence sounds as if he is crying and running out of the house, whereas the intended meaning is he ran = how = crying, if that makes sense.)

    6. We left the house having performed all the tasks. (“having performed” seems to be restrictive sequence – we left the house after having performed all the task.)

    Would be great to get your feedback on the above.

    • Paul, without getting into the question of reduced adverbials, let’s look at another use of participles, one which fits almost all of your examples. I think it will give you the answer concerning the use of commas.

      We use participles without commas after verbs describing/showing a position or a movement. Such verbs would include come, go, move, sit, stand, stay, remain, and the like.

      He stood crying.

      The little girl came tripping down the lane.

      She remained unblinking as the blocks toppled over.

      For your examples—

      1. John came in offering advice. No comma necessary because it fits this use of participles. Yet many minor changes would result in a need for a comma—John eventually came in, offering advice; John came in with a smile, offering advice.

      2. I fell down, injuring myself. Comma necessary. The participial phrase is nonessential here. If this said something like I fell down smiling, no comma would be necessary.

      3. I fell asleep reading a book. No comma necessary. The phrase is essential, and it fits the pattern of movement verb followed by a participle.

      4. He stood by the window singing a song. No comma is necessary here because of the rule. Yet because of the additional words, you might be trying to treat singing a song as a nonessential phrase. I’d say no comma, but if a writer wanted to treat singing a song as something like a parenthetical, you could argue for a comma.

      5. He ran out of the house crying. You’re right that this one could cause a misreading no matter what choice you make with the comma. So the best option is to rewrite—move the participle closer to the other verb: He ran crying out of the house.

      6. We left the house, having performed all the tasks. Comma is necessary.

      7. John went to work wearing a tie. No comma. This fits the use of a participle after a verb of movement.

      8. I came home tired. No comma. This fits the same participle use.

      9. I came home, tired of all the issues. Comma here. This setup is like #6.


      Does the comma use make sense for these? Let me know if you have more questions.

      I should probably add this other use of participles to the article. It’s a different setup and should be explained. Thanks for the great questions and examples.

      • Paul says:

        Thank you, Beth, for another great explanation. Makes sense now why these participles require no commas.

        I do, however, have a few follow-up questions, if you don’t mind:

        1. In cases #2 and #3 you seem to suggest that comma is determined based on whether the following phrase is essential or not, yet the rule on commas with participles at the end of the clause seem to be based whether the participle is next to the modifying rule or not. How would one decide in which of these cases to use essential / non-essential rule or the rule around the position of the participle in relation to the the word it’s modifying to determine comma placement. So in case #3 the participle reading is not next to the modified word, yet we put no comma on the ground of it’s being essential – seems like two different logics but unsure which to use in which casec(hope this makes sense)?

        2. Why would case #8 not have a comma and case #9 would if the only difference is former being a single-word participle and latter participle phrase? Could I argue for participle phrase in case #9 to be essential? If read with comma, “I came home” becomes the end statement with the rest parenthetically added; however, the intent is to say “I came home tired + (object of the participle = of the issues). Same as “I came home (being) fed up with arguments at work” – no comma to signal the state in which I came home? Another example would be “I came home (being) unable to think clearly”. So I would put a comma if I wanted “coming home” to be the main fact, but would not if “coming home tired / unable to think” is the main fact.

        3. Case #6 requires a comma, but could it be argued that “having performed all the tasks” is an essential restrictive adverbial with “after” implied, which in full form would have no comma (I left the house after having performed all the tasks), just like “US is large compared to the UK” – no comma as “when” before compared is implied? Another example could be “I poured the wine (after) having opened the bottle” – no comma with “after” implied?

        4. Comparing again cases #8 and #9, and also #2, it seems comma is not needed in most cases when a single-word participle comes at the end, but needed when it becomes a participle phrase. Is this a fair assessment? E.g. I finished my work exhausted. I recited a poem standing still.

        5. In addition to the no comma rule with verbs of movement, could it be said that no comma is required with participle phrases acting adverbially with adverbs (e.g. after, while, when) implied when such adverbial clauses are essential to the meaning as per point 3 above?

  8. Paul says:

    And sorry, a few more to be definately sure:

    1. John went to work wearing a tie. (“Wearing a tie” is related to went = went how? = wearing a tie. Not just went to work as the sentence is him going to work while wearing a tie.)

    2. I came home tired. Or: I came home tired of all the issues (“Tired” can refer to “I”, in which case there is a distinct pause to describe “I”, but it can also refer to came = in what state = came tired of all the issues.)

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