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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?

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

5 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.

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