What is a participle phrase?
Participles are words formed from verbs that can function as adjectives, as gerunds, or to form the continuous and perfect tenses of verbs. Past participles are often (but not always) formed by adding “-d” or “-ed” to the end of the verb, while present participles are always formed by adding “-ing” to the end.
When they function as adjectives, participles can form participle phrases (sometimes known as participle clauses) with any information that modifies or complements them. Because they function as adjectives, participle phrases modify nouns, noun phrases, or pronouns in a sentence.
Using participle phrases
We can form phrases using present, past, perfect, and passive perfect participles—each one changes the way the noun is modified. Where they appear in a sentence also impacts the sentence’s meaning, as well as the way in which they’re punctuated.
Present participle phrases
If we use the present participle in a phrase, we give the phrase an active meaning. In other words, the noun being modified is the agent of the action expressed by the present participle. For example:
- “Singing in the shower, I was oblivious to the doorbell ringing.” (I was singing.)
- “James, hiding under the bed, was completely silent.” (James was hiding.)
Past participle phrases
If we use the past participle to form an adjectival phrase, the noun being modified is either given a passive role in the action, or else is being described. For example:
- “My car, destroyed in the accident, was taken away by the mechanics.”
- “My sister, exhausted after a long day’s work, fell asleep on the sofa.”
In the first example, the noun phrase my car is not the agent of the action, but is being acted upon; it has been destroyed by another driver, and so it has a passive role. In the second example, my sister is also not the agent of the verb exhaust. Instead, exhausted is used to describe how she feels.
Perfect participle phrases
When we want to emphasize that one event happened before another, we can use the structure having + past participle—this is sometimes known as the perfect participle. Perfect participle phrases, like the present participle, designate that the noun being modified is the agent of the participle’s action. For example:
- “Having seen the movie before, I wouldn’t want to see it again.”
- “Having done so much exercise this morning, we should eat a big lunch.”
- “She was exhausted, having stayed up all night.”
Passive perfect participle phrases
If we want to describe a noun that was passively acted upon in an event that happened before another one, we can use what is known as the passive perfect participle (sometimes called the perfect passive participle), which is structured as having + been + past participle. For example:
- “Having been dismissed from class early, Thomas decided to explore the river by his house.”
- “The turkey, having been burnt to a crisp, was thrown in the garbage.”
- “The book is ancient, having been written nearly 3,000 years ago.”
This is similar to how past participle phrases are used, but the emphasis is placed on the first action happening further in the past. And whereas past participle phrases can be used to describe a noun or pronoun, passive perfect participle phrases stress the action being done to the noun—they cannot be used to create simple descriptions. For instance:
- “My sister, exhausted after a long day’s work, fell asleep on the sofa.” (correct)
- “My sister, having been exhausted after a long day’s work, fell asleep on the sofa.” (incorrect)
Where a participle phrase appears in a sentence changes the way we punctuate it, as does its importance to the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
When a participle phrase occurs in the initial position, it is usually separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. For example:
- “Running to the car, the boy welcomed his father home after three months away.”
- “Singing in the shower, I was oblivious to the doorbell ringing.”
- “Scared, my sister slept with the light on.”
When the phrase occurs in the middle position, and is not essential to the meaning of the sentence, it should be set apart from the rest of the sentence by two commas. For example:
- “My sister, exhausted, has fallen asleep on the sofa.”
- “James, hiding under the bed, was completely silent.”
- “The turkey, having been burnt to a crisp, was thrown in the garbage.”
If we took the participle phrases out, each of the examples above would still mean the same thing, just with less descriptive detail.
However, if a participle phrase occurs in the middle position and is essential to the meaning of the sentence, it should not be set apart by commas. For example:
- “The students finished with their work may have a break.”
- “Jackets left behind will be donated.”
- “Participants breaking the rules will be removed from the competition.”
If we took the participle phrases out of these examples, we would be left with completely different meanings, as each phrase describes an essential aspect about the noun to set it apart from others. To make it clear that this description is integral to the sentence’s meaning, we do not use commas to set it apart.
If the participle phrase occurs in the final position immediately after the noun that it modifies, it doesn’t need a comma. For example:
- “We looked for hours and finally found James hiding under the bed.”
- “The cat had no interest in the poor dog wagging its tail.”
- “I was in such a hurry I didn’t notice my jacket left on the table.”
However, when it occurs in final position but not immediately after the noun that it modifies, it does need a comma. For example:
- “It was obvious he really enjoyed the meal, having helped himself to more dessert.”
- “My sister cried as she packed up her belongings, saddened at the idea of moving out of her childhood home.”
- “Most of the puzzle pieces have disappeared, misplaced after so many years.”
When we use participle phrases as adjectives, it’s important that the noun modified is clearly stated and that the phrase appears as close to it as possible. Otherwise, we run the risk of errors known as misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers.
A misplaced modifier can occur when there is more than one noun in the sentence. If we don’t place the participle phrase close enough to the noun that it modifies, it may seem that it modifies another noun. For example:
- “Terrified after watching a scary movie, my father had to comfort my little sister.”
In the above sentence, the participle phrase terrified after watching a scary movie is supposed to modify my little sister. However, since my father appears closer to the participial phrase, it seems it is the father who is terrified. The sentence should be rewritten to correct the misplaced modifier. For example:
- “My father had to comfort my sister, terrified after watching a scary movie.”
- “Terrified after watching a scary movie, my sister had to be comforted by my father.”
- “My sister, terrified after watching a scary movie, had to be comforted by my father.”
A dangling modifier occurs when we don’t clearly state the noun that is supposed to be modified by the participle. For example:
- “Walking down the road, the birds were singing.”
Because the sentence does not state who was walking down the road, is seems that it was the birds, which is probably not the intended meaning. The sentence needs to include another noun or pronoun being described by the phrase to correct the dangling modifier. For example:
- “Walking down the road, I (or she, he, Mary, the couple, etc.) heard the birds singing.”