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Creating and Arranging Participial Phrases

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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").
Both participles work as adjectives and follow the noun they modify: "hair."

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
However, irregular verbs have various past participle endings (such as thrown, ridden, built, and gone). If you're unsure of a past participle ending, visit The Principal Parts of Irregular Verbs.

Participial Phrases

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.
To emphasize the quick, successive actions described in these three sentences, we can combine them by turning the verbs guided and bounced into present participles:
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.
(J. Anthony Lucas, "The Inner Game of Pinball")
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.

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.
(N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn)
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.

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.
But consider what happens when the participial phrase moves to the end of the sentence:
  • My sister finally quit her job, discouraged by the long hours and low pay.
Here the logical order of cause-effect is reversed, and as a result the sentence may be less effective than the first two versions.

Dangling Phrases

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.
The doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.
Notice what happens if we drop "I" and change the first sentence to a participial phrase:
    Curling my toes and squinting, the doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.
Here the participial phrases refer to "the doctor" when they should refer to "I"--a pronoun that's not in the sentence. This kind of problem--called a dangling modifier--should be avoided.

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.

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