Participles  

What is a participle?

Participles are words formed from verbs that can function as adjectives or gerunds or can be used to form the continuous tenses and the perfect tenses of verbs. There are two participle forms: the present participle and the past participle.

Form

The present participle

The present participle is the “-ing” form of a verb. This verb form is always the same, whether the verb is regular or irregular. For example:

Regular verbs

Regular verb
Present Participle
apologize
apologizing
close
closing
follow
following
look
looking
remember
remembering

Irregular verbs

Irregular verb
Present Participle
eat
eating
run
running
sing
singing
think
thinking
write
writing
be
being

The past participle

Unlike the present participle, the past participle form changes depending on the verb. The past participle of regular verbs ends in “-ed,” and is generally the same as the simple past tense of the verb. For example:
Regular verb
Past Simple
Past Participle
apologize
apologized
apologized
close
closed
closed
follow
followed
followed
look
looked
looked
remember
remembered
remembered
The past participle form of irregular verbs has a variety of endings that must be memorized. Note that the past participle is usually (but not always) different from the past simple form for irregular verbs. For example:
Irregular verb
Past Simple
Past Participle
eat
ate
eaten
run
ran
run
sing
sang
sung
think
thought
thought
write
wrote
written
be
was/were
been

Using participles as adjectives and in participle phrases

Present and past participles can be used as adjectives or as part of a participle phrase. Participles allow us to condense two sentences into one, expressing ideas that would otherwise require relative clauses, subordinating conjunctions, etc., in a more economical way. For example:
Longer Form
Using a participle
“She soothed the baby, who was crying.”
“She soothed the crying baby.”
“I was oblivious to the doorbell ringing because I was singing in the shower.”
Singing in the shower, I was oblivious to the doorbell ringing.”
“We finally found James, who was hiding under the bed, after hours of searching.”
“After hours of searching, we finally found James hiding under the bed.”

As adjectives

When we form an adjective using the present participle, we imply action on the part of the noun being modified. For example:
  • “She soothed the crying baby.” (The baby is crying).
  • “The speeding car crashed into the tree.” (The car was speeding.)
  • Hugging, the two sisters said goodbye to each other.” (The sisters were hugging.)
When we form an adjective using the past participle, on the other hand, we don’t imply action on the part of noun that it modifies. Instead, we describe a characteristic of that noun. For example:
  • “I picked up the broken bottle.” (The bottle is broken.)
  • “The jumbled puzzle pieces were all over the floor.” (The puzzle pieces are jumbled.)
  • “Please get me a bag of frozen vegetables.” (The vegetables are frozen.)

As participle phrases

Participial phrases (sometimes known as participial clauses) are groups of words that contain a participle and function as adjective phrases.

Present participle phrase

If we use the present participle in a phrase, we give the clause an active meaning. In other words, the noun being modified is the agent of the action. 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 phrase

If we use the past participle, the noun being modified is either given a passive role in the action, or else is being described. For example:
  • The turkey, burnt to a crisp, was thrown in the garbage.”
  • My sister, exhausted after a long day’s work, has fallen asleep on the sofa.”
In the first example, the turkey is not the agent of the action, but is being acted upon; it has been burnt by the oven or by the person cooking, 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 phrase (Having + past participle)

When we want to emphasize that one event happened before another, we can use the structure having + past participle, also known as the perfect participle. For example:
  • Having seen the movie before, I wouldn’t want to see it again.”
  • Having done a lot of exercise this morning, we should eat a big lunch.”
  • “She was exhausted, having stayed up all night watching TV.”

Sentence Placement

Initial position

When a participle or 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.”

Middle position

When the participle or 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, burnt to a crisp, was thrown in the garbage.”
However, if it 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.”

Final position

If the participle or 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.”
  • “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 dinner, having had a second helping of 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.”

Common mistakes

When we use participles as adjectives, it’s important that the noun modified is clearly stated and that the participle appears as close to it as possible. Otherwise, we run the risk of errors known as misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers.

Misplaced modifier

A misplaced modifier can occur when there is more than one noun in the sentence. If we don’t place the participle 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 participle phrase, it seems it is the father that 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.”
or
  • Terrified after watching a scary movie, my sister had to be comforted by my father.”
or
  • My sister, terrified after watching a scary movie, had to be comforted by my father.”

Dangling modifier

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 probably is not the intended meaning. The sentence needs to be rewritten to correct the dangling modifier. For example:
  • Walking down the road, I heard the birds singing.”

Using participles as gerunds

The present participle is also used to create gerunds. A gerund is a form of a verb that can be used as a noun, functioning as a subject, complement, or object of a sentence. For example:
  • Swimming is my favorite sport.” (subject)
  • “My brother’s favorite sport is cycling.” (complement)
  • “Do you enjoy running?” (object)

Using participles in verb tenses

Both present and past participles are used along with auxiliary verbs to form multi-part verb tenses.

The present participle in verb tenses

The present participle is used to form the past, present, and future continuous tenses.

Present Continuous

The present continuous tense is mainly used for stating an action that is taking place at the moment of speaking, or an action that will take place in the near future. It is formed using the present tense of the auxiliary verb be + the present participle of the main verb. For example:
  • “I’m singing.”
  • “He’s running.”
  • “We’re hiding.”

Past Continuous

The past continuous tense is primarily used to describe an action that took place over a period of time in the past, especially if interrupted by another action. It is formed using was (the past tense of the auxiliary verb be) + the present participle of the main verb. For example:
  • “I was singing in the shower when the doorbell rang.”
  • “She was eating dinner when I called.”
  • “They were helping their mom clean the house all day.”

Present perfect continuous

The present perfect continuous tense is mainly used to describe an action that has recently taken place and still has an effect on the present. It places the emphasis on the duration of the action rather than the result. It is formed using have/has + been + the present participle form of the main verb. For example:
  • “I have been singing loudly, so my throat’s sore.”
  • “I think she’s been crying—her eyes are really red.”
  • “They’ve been running for 20 minutes already.”

Past perfect continuous

The past perfect continuous tense is used to describe an action that began in the past, and continued until another point in the past. It is formed using had + been + the present participle form of the main verb. For example:
  • “They had been singing for two hours when the concert finished.”
  • “She had been waiting for a bus for a long time when I saw her.”
  • “I had been reading my book for about 20 minutes when I realized it was time to leave.”

Future Continuous

The future continuous tense is used to describe an action that will be in progress at a certain point in the future. It is formed using will + be + the present participle form of the main verb. For example:
  • “Tomorrow at eight o’clock I will be waiting for my flight.”
  • “Don’t call at six o’clock because they’ll be having dinner.”
  • “She’ll be driving all afternoon tomorrow.”

Future Perfect Continuous

The future perfect continuous tense is used to describe an action that will continue up until a certain point in the future. It emphasizes the duration of the action, and is formed using will + have + been + the present participle form of the main verb. For example:
  • “At eight o'clock I’ll have been waiting here for an hour.”
  • “She’ll have been living in New York City for 10 years next month.”
  • “We will have been working on this project for three weeks as of tomorrow.”

The past participle in verb tenses

The past participle is used in forming the present, past, and future simple perfect tenses.

Present Perfect

The present perfect tense is used to describe an action or experience in the recent past that still has an effect on the present. It is similar to the present perfect continuous, but instead of placing the emphasis on the duration of the action, it subtly emphasizes the result. It is formed using have/has + the past participle form of the main verb. For example:
  • “I have eaten already.”
  • “I’ve spent all my money.”
  • “She hasn’t been here before.”

Past Perfect

The past perfect tense is used to describe an action that was completed in the past, prior to another past action. It is formed using had + the past participle form of the main verb. For example:
  • “I had eaten when she called.”
  • “Why did you visit Las Vegas again when you had been there before?”
  • “She had cooked dinner and had it waiting on the table when we got home.”

Future perfect

The future perfect tense is used to describe an action that will be completed at a certain point in the future. It is formed using will + have + the past participle form of the main verb. For example:
  • “When you get here, we’ll have eaten already.”
  • “They’ll have finished by late tonight.”
  • “The baby will have woken up by six o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Quiz

1. Participles are used to form ________.






2. The present participle ends in ________.





3. Which of the following words is not a past participle?





4. Complete the following sentence:
“________ under the bed, the dog was terrified of the thunder.”





5. Which of the following sentences is punctuated correctly?





Further reading

Complete English Grammar Rules is available for purchase as Paperback and Kindle eBook.
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