Understanding Participial Phrases

Watch out for danglers!

Referee flashing red card in soccer game
Present participial phrase: "The referee, working before unfriendly crowds, has orders to exude poise under the most trying circumstances.". Tom Merton/Caiaimage/Getty Images

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, modifying nouns and pronouns. The participial phrase contains a participle and the other words in the phrase that modify the noun or pronoun. They can't stand alone as complete sentences.

Present or Past

Participial phrases or clauses consist of a present participle (a verbal ending in "ing") or past participle (a verbal ending in "en" "ed," "d," "t," "n," or "ne"), plus modifiers, objects, and complements. A participle may be followed by an adverb, a prepositional phrase, an adverb clause, or any combination of these. They are set off by commas and function the same way adjectives do in a sentence.

  • Past-participial phraseInvented 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.

Here, for example, the participial phrase consists of a present participle (holding), an object (the flashlight), and an adverb (steadily):

  • Holding the flashlight steadily, Jenny approached the strange creature.

In the next sentence, the participial phrase includes a present participle (making), an object (a great ring), and a prepositional phrase (of white light):

  • Jenny waved the flashlight over her head, making a great ring of white light.

Placement and Punctuation

Participial phrases can appear in one of three places within a sentence, but be careful not to 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.

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."

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 Participial Phrases

Although participial phrases 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 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 reach for a glass—but a person can pick up that glass and fill it.

Be careful when combining sentences and converting one to a participial phrase to keep the subject of the sentence that goes with the adjectival phrase. For instance, you wouldn't want the following sentences:

  • I curled my toes and squinted.
  • The doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.

to turn into:

  • 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 is called a dangling modifier.

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.

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

Confusing gerunds or participles can be easy 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.