As seen in Identifying Verbals, a participle is a verb form used as an adjective to modify nouns and pronouns. Participles can add vigor to our writing as they add information to our sentences. Here we'll practice creating and arranging participial phrases.
Participles as Modifiers
Consider the different verb forms in this sentence:
My father's hair, streaked with gray and receding on both sides, is combed straight back to his collar.The main verb (or predicate) of the sentence is the phrase is combed. The other two verbs forms are participles:
- streaked is a past participle, formed by adding -ed to the present form of the verb ("streak");
- receding is a present participle, formed by adding -ing to the verb ("recede").
Like regular adjectives, participles may also appear in front of the nouns they modify:
The whispering breeze scattered seeds across the abandoned fields.Here, both the present participle whispering and the past participle abandoned stand in front of the nouns they describe ("breeze" and "fields").
Present and Past Participles
When thinking about participles, don't be misled by the words present and past. These terms refer to different forms of verbs, not to different times or tenses.
All present participles end in -ing:
- the laughing lady
the falling temperature
the stinging remark
The past participles of all regular verbs end in -ed:
- the tired dancer
the injured player
the cracked vase
Both present and past participles can be used in phrases--called participial phrases--that modify nouns and pronouns. A participial phrase is made up of a participle and its modifiers. A participle may be followed by an object, an adverb, a prepositional phrase, an adverb clause, or any combination of these. Here, for example, the participial phrase consists of a present participle (holding), an object (the torch), and an adverb (steadily):
Holding the torch steadily, Merdine approached the monster.In the next sentence, the participial phrase includes a present participle (making), an object (a great ring), and a prepositional phrase (of white light):
Merdine waved the torch over her head, making a great ring of white light.
Let's practice by combining these three sentences, turning the first and third into participial phrases:
- I guided the pinball through the upper chutes, down a runover lane, off the slingshot bumpers to the flippers.
- I cradled it there.
- I bounced it back and forth until I had a perfect shot through the spinner.
Guiding the ball through the upper chutes, down a runover lane, off the slingshot bumpers to the flippers, I cradled it there, bouncing it back and forth until I had a perfect shot through the spinner.Here, the first phrase includes a present participle (Guiding) and its object (the pinball), followed by a series of prepositional phrases. The second participial phrase again contains a present participle (bouncing) and its object (it), followed by a pair of adverbs (back and forth) and an adverb clause. Both participial phrases modify "I," the subject of the sentence. Note that participial phrases can't stand alone as complete sentences: they must modify a noun or pronoun in the sentence.
(J. Anthony Lucas, "The Inner Game of Pinball")
Arranging Participial Phrases
A participial phrase is flexible, a structure that can be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. Participial phrases may be arranged to show a sequence of actions, as in the "pinball" sentence just seen. They may also be set up to show that two or more actions are occurring at the same time:
The eagles swooped and hovered, leaning on the air, and swung close together, feinting and screaming with delight.In this sentence, the eagles were "leaning on the air" as they "hovered"; they were "feinting and screaming with delight" as they swung close together.
(N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn)
Though you can shift a participial phrase to different positions, don't risk awkwardness or confusion by placing it too far from the word it modifies. For example, a participial phrase that indicates a cause usually precedes the main clause, sometimes follows the subject, but only rarely appears at the end of the sentence.
In each sentence below, the participial phrase clearly modifies the subject ("my younger sister") and suggests a cause:
- Discouraged by the long hours and low pay, my sister finally quit her job.
- My sister, discouraged by the long hours and low pay, finally quit her job.
- My sister finally quit her job, discouraged by the long hours and low pay.
A participial phrase should refer clearly to a noun or pronoun in the sentence. We have to be careful when combining sentences such as these:
I curled my toes and squinted.Notice what happens if we drop "I" and change the first sentence to a participial phrase:
The doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.
- Curling my toes and squinting, the doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.
We can correct this dangling modifier either by adding "I" to the sentence or by replacing the participial phrase with an adverb clause:
- Curling my toes and squinting, I waited for the doctor to puncture my arm with a needle.
- As I curled my toes and squinted, the doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.