Understanding Participial Phrases

Participial Phrase

A participial phrase or clause is a wonderful tool for writers because it gives color and action to a sentence. By employing verbals—words derived from a verb —along with other grammatical elements, an author can craft clauses that function as an adjective. The following tips will show you how to use participial phrases correctly when writing.

Constructing a Participial Phrase

Participial clauses consist of a present participle (a verbal ending in "ing") or past participle (a verbal ending in "en"), plus modifiers, objects, and complements.

They are set aside by commas and function the same way adjectives do in a sentence.

Past-participial phrase: Invented by an Indiana housewife in 1889, the first dishwasher was driven by a steam engine.

Present-participial phrase: The referee, working before unfriendly crowds, has orders to exude poise under the most trying circumstances.

Clause Placement and Punctuation

Participial phrases can appear in one of three places within a sentence. No matter where they are, they always modify a subject. Correctly punctuating a sentence that contains such a clause depends on where it is placed in reference to the subject.

Before the main clause, the participial phrase is followed by a comma: Speeding down the highway, Bob didn't notice the police car.​ After the main clause, it is preceded by a comma: The gamblers silently arranged their cards, losing themselves in thought.​ In mid-sentence position, it is set off by commas before and after: The real estate agent, thinking of her profit potential, decided not to buy the property.


Gerunds Vs. Participles

A gerund is a verbal that also ends in "ing," just like participles in the present tense. You can tell them apart by looking at how they function within a sentence. A gerund functions as a noun, while a present participle functions as an adjective.

Gerund: Laughing is good for you.

Present participle: The laughing woman clapped her hands with joy.

Gerund Clauses Vs. Participial Phrases

It can also be easy to confuse gerunds or participles because both can also form clauses. The simplest way to differentiate the two is to use the word "it" in place of the verbal. If the sentence still makes grammatical sense, you've got a gerund clause: if not, it's a participial phrase.

Gerund phrase: Playing golf relaxes Shelly.

Participial phrase: Waiting for takeoff, the pilot radioed the control tower.

Dangling Participial Phrases

Although such clauses can be an effective tool, beware. A misplaced or dangling participial phrase can cause some embarrassing errors. The easiest way to tell whether a phrase is being used correctly or not is to look at the subject it is modifying. Does the relationship make sense?

Dangling phrase: Reaching for a glass, the cold soda called my name.

Corrected phrase: Reaching for a glass, I could hear the cold soda calling my name.

The first example is illogical; a bottle of soda can't magically pour itself into a glass. But a person can pick up that glass and fill it.