participial phrase

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Participial Phrase


In English grammar, a participial phrase is a word group consisting of a present participle (also known as an -ing form) or past participle (also known as an -en form), plus any modifiers, objects, and complements.

A participial phrase commonly functions as an adjective.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Past-Participial Phrases
    - Invented by an Indiana housewife in 1889, the first dishwasher was driven by a steam engine.

    - Driven by a steam engine, the first dishwasher was invented by an Indiana housewife in 1889.

    - "The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail."
    (Peter Benchley, Jaws, 1974)

    - "The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear."
    (Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human, 1953)

    - "The Angelus Building looms on the corner of its block, seven stories, thick with dark windows, caged in a dingy mesh of fire escapes."
    (Edmund Wilson, Travels in Two Democracies, 1936)
  • Present-Participial Phrases
    - A referee, always working before unfriendly crowds, has orders to exude poise under the most trying circumstances.

    - "He moved ahead more quickly now, dragging his heels a little in the fine dust."
    (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939)

    - "Goldsmith smiled, bunching his fat cheeks like twin rolls of smooth pink toilet paper."
    (Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts, 1933)

    - "Here and there through the smoke, creeping warily under the shadows of tottering walls, emerged occasional men and women."
    (Jack London, "Story of an Eyewitness: The San Francisco Earthquake." Collier's Weekly, May 5, 1906)

    - "Gramp Stevens sat in a lawn chair, watching the mower at work, feeling the warm, soft sunshine seep into his bones."
    (Clifford D. Simak, "City," 1944)

    - "A trailer door opened and a young woman stepped out, leading a child who beat upon her legs with a wooden spoon."
    (David Sedaris, "Naked," 1997)

    - "Whirling happily in my starchy frock, showing off my biscuit-polished patent-leather shoes and lavender socks, tossing my head in a way that makes my ribbons bounce, I stand, hands on hips, before my father."
    (Alice Walker, "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self," 1983)

    "One evening, perhaps a decade ago, I was walking along Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown when a fishmonger, rushing out of his shop carrying a tank full of eels, slipped. Before he could let out a curse, there were eels and elvers everywhere: dark and gleaming, slithering over pedestrians’ feet, wriggling off onto the asphalt, escaping through the storm drains, animating every crack in the concrete."
    (Ben Ehrenreich, "Eels Über Alles: On Julio Cortázar." The Nation, Dec. 26, 2011)

    - "Then he saw the eagles across the distance, two of them, riding low in the depths and rising diagonally toward him."
    (N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn, 1969)

    - "'You know where I'd really like to be this evening?'


    "'In a forest looking for beechnuts and truffles and delectable roots, pushing leaves aside with my wonderful strong nose, searching and sniffing along the ground, smelling, smelling, smelling . . .'

    "'You smell just the way you are,' remarked a lamb who had just walked in."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper & Row, 1952)

    - "I walked with shoulders hunched and eyes cast down, avoiding the water that rushed down the steep, slickly cobbled lanes, browsing in the windows of antique shops, wishing I had a hat or an umbrella or a ticket to Bermuda. I retreated into a dark coffee shop, where I sat shivering, drinking a three-dollar cup of coffee with both hands, watching the rain through the window, and realized I had a cold coming on."
    (Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe. William Morrow, 1992)
  • Placement and Punctuation of Participial Phrases
    "We find participial phrases in three positions. Participial phrases can come before a main clause (initial position), after a noun phrase they are modifying (middle position), or after a main clause (final position). . . .

    What kind of punctuation do we need to use when participial phrases occur in different positions?
    • When the participial phrase comes before a main clause, it is followed by a comma.
    • When the participial phrase follows a main clause, a comma must come before the participial phrase.
    • When the participial phrase occurs in mid-sentence position, we use two commas. One comma comes before the participial phrase and the other comes after it.
    (Andrea DeCapua, Grammar for Teachers: A Guide to American English for Native and Non-Native Speakers. Springer, 2008)
  • What's the Difference Between a Gerund and a Present Participle?
    Both of these -ing forms are verbals. A gerund functions as a noun: Laughing is good for you. A present participle functions as an adjective: The old laughing lady dropped by to call.
  • How to Tell the Difference Between a Gerund and a Participial Phrase
    "An easy way to help you differentiate between the two structures is to try substituting 'it.' If the gerund or gerund phrase is functioning as a noun, as in Sentence (24), you can substitute 'it' and the sentence is still grammatical, as in Sentence (24a).
    (24) Doing crossword puzzles relaxes Lyle.
    (24a) It relaxes Lyle.
    If, on the other hand, the participle is part of a participial phrase and functioning as an adjective, substituting 'it' will give you a nonsense sentence. Compare Sentences (25) and (25a).
    (25) While waiting for takeoff, the flight attendants passed out magazines.
    *(25a) It, the flight attendants passed out magazines."
    (Andrea DeCapua, Grammar for Teachers: A Guide to American English for Native and Non-Native Speakers. Springer, 2008)
  • On the Lighter Side: A Misplaced Participial Phrase
    "Google’s human resources boss, a serious woman with bangs named Stacey Sullivan, thought Page’s plan was nuts, according to I'm Feeling Lucky, Douglas Edwards' inside view of Google's early years."
    (Nicholas Carson, "The Untold Story Of Larry Page's Incredible Comeback." Business Insider, April 24, 2014)


    Also Known As: participle clause, participial clause