1. What is a Participial Phrase?
A participial phrase is a phrase that looks like a verb, but actually functions as an adjective; it modifies a noun in the same sentence. Phrases like this can “spice up” a noun and provide added description about what it’s doing or what it looks like.
They’re often used in pieces that need to tell readers a lot in a few words, like newspaper articles or even fiction books.
2. Examples of Participial Phrases
Here are few simple examples of participial phrases (in green) in action. We really do see them all the time, even though they sound sort of complicated.
- Fond of brushing her hair, Kelly always had smooth and silky locks.
It might look like Kelly is brushing her hair in the action of this sentence, but the beginning phrase is actually an adjective here. It tells us something about Kelly, a noun and the subject of the sentence. That makes “Fond of brushing her hair” a participial phrase. The participial phrase doesn’t describe an action that’s happening currently, but it does help us understand why Kelly always has soft hair.
- The trash can sat in the corner, brimming with garbage.
Here, the phrase “brimming with garbage” tells us about the trash can, a noun. “Brimming” is a verb, but the entire phrase acts as an adjective again. That makes “brimming with garbage” another participial phrase!
3. Parts of a Participial Phrase
Participial phrases will always start with a participle. A participle is formed from a verb, but it acts as a noun or an adjective. They modify other nouns in sentences, and are often parts of longer phrases—like a participial phrase, of course!
The participle in a participial phrase can be either the present participle or the past participle.
- The present participle of a verb expresses the action of a verb, specifically in the present. It will always end in –ing, every single time.
- Meanwhile, the past participle of a verb is not always as easy to pick out. They usually end in -ed, for regular past participles. But irregular past participles are out there, ready to try and confuse you. Don’t let them, though, because you already use most past participles without knowing that they’re called past participles!
The best way to show you how present participles and past participles are different is to give you a few example verbs.
|Verb Infinitive||Present Participle||Past Participle|
- The woman, smiling and waving, said hello.
With the verb “to smile,” we get a present participle of smiling. “Smiling” describes the woman, so we know more about her. That’s the present participle in action, and the past participle for smile would be pretty similar!
- Framed and hung, the painting lit up the room.
The past participle is irregular this time, because “hung” doesn’t end in –ed like regular past participles. Now our participial phrase is “framed and hung” and we get information about the subject: the painting.
Picking out the participle in a participial phrase is actually pretty easy, because participles stick out once you figure out how they work. There’s a participle in every participial phrase, so it’s important you understand how to use them.
A participial phrase sometimes uses a noun, depending on the participle. Some participles will just make more sense with a noun. A noun is a person, place, or thing, and is usually the subject of a sentence. Common nouns are words like dog, book, or computer. They can also be the names of specific people or places. In some cases, like participial phrases, adding a noun can bring more detail to a sentence.
- The phone was almost out of battery power, blinking in the dark.
The participial phrase “blinking in the dark” describes a noun, the phone. Most sentences with participial phrases will work in similar ways, because the participial phrases will always modify the subject of the sentence.
The participle “blinking” might make sense on its own in another sentence, but in this sentence the noun “dark” gives us a better sense of what’s going on.
- The phone was almost out of battery power, blinking.
Now the noun “dark” is gone and we can still mostly understand what the participial phrase means, but it’s just a bit weird. It’s not clear what’s blinking, or why it’s blinking. The participial phrase feels incomplete without “in the dark” and we’re not getting enough information. So sometimes participial phrases will use nouns to clear up a situation or give more detail. The nouns aren’t always necessary, and you should be able to feel it out through context.
A modifier will modify a noun, just like the name says. They can be lots of different kinds of words—like adjectives, adverbs, or even participles—as long as they modify a noun. Modifiers add more detail to a phrase, so they can be used in participial phrases to describe more of the situation. Check out the example of a modifier in a participial phrase to see how they work!
- Quickly opening the bag, Carrie found her favorite notebook.
The word “quickly” tells us more about how Carrie opened the bag, and that makes it a modifier. Meanwhile, the entire participial phrase describes how Carrie found her notebook.
Modifiers are used all the time to make a sentence more interesting and give us more information. They’re also used in participial phrases, like in the example sentence, to describe the action of the phrase. Modifiers can add a lot of fun to a sentence or a phrase, so use them right and you can have fascinating sentences!
4. How to Avoid Mistakes When Writing Participial Phrases
First, your participial phrase will need to use a participle, in past or present form. Make sure you have the right form if you’re using an irregular past participle! Also, remember that a participial phrase describes a subject (usually a noun!) but isn’t part of the main clause of a sentence. The main clause of the sentence describes the action going on. If you take out the participial phrase, the main clause should still be a complete sentence.
Here’s what you shouldn’t do with your participial phrases.
a. Don’t Forget Punctuation
When you start a sentence with a participial phrase, you’ll need to use commas to set it apart from the main clause. But when your participial phrase describes the word right in front of it, you don’t need the commas.
- Pouring a glass of milk Amanda concentrated.
This sentence doesn’t make much sense, does it? It sounds like half of a sentence! Instead of a glass a milk, it seems like someone is pouring a glass of something called “milk Amanda concentrated.”
Here’s how it should look with a comma.
- Pouring a glass of milk, Amanda concentrated.
Now the participial phrase “pouring a glass of milk” is set apart from the rest of a sentence with a comma, and it makes much more sense. It is describing Amanda (the noun) as she concentrates.
b. Avoid Dangling Modifiers
You should also watch out for what’s called a dangling modifier. This happens when a participial phrase is put in the wrong place, and that makes it seem like they’re describing the wrong noun or subject in a sentence. This can confuse people, but it can also create some pretty funny misunderstandings and the sentence doesn’t make logical sense. Here is an example of a misplaced participial phrase and how to correct it.
- The cup of water spilled everywhere and Connor walked over to clean it up, dripping over the sides of the table.
The participial phrase “dripping over the sides of the table” is stuck in the wrong place here. Now it looks like Connor is dripping off the table instead of the water! Both the cup of water and Connor are nouns, but the participial phrase can only modify one of them. It should be put closer to its noun so that the sentence makes more sense. Here’s what it should look like.
- The cup of water spilled everywhere, dripping over the sides of the table, and Connor walked over to clean it up.
Now we can clearly see that the water is what’s dripping, not Connor. It’s important to link your participial phrase to the right noun, so that your sentences don’t get too hard to understand.
c. Avoid Confusing Gerunds With Participial Phrases
A gerund looks like a participial phrase, but it actually does something different when it’s used in a sentence. Gerunds are verb phrases that act as nouns, but participial phrases act as adjectives. Here are some sentences with gerunds and participial phrases so you can learn to tell them apart.
- Turning the light on is a necessity at night.
In this sentence, “turning the light on” is a gerund. We can tell this is a gerund because the phrase acts as a noun in the sentence. The rest of the sentence describes the gerund, by saying that it’s “a necessity at night.” So gerunds might look just like participial phrases, but make sure you figure out what the phrase is doing before you decide what it is.
- Turning the light on, Haley walks into the room.
Now the same phrase is a participial phrase! It’s set off from the main clause of the sentence “Haley walks into the room” with a comma. Also, if we take out the participial phrase, the sentence still makes sense. The phrase “turning the light on” describes Haley, instead of being described like a gerund would.
Gerunds and participial phrases can sometimes be the exact same words, but they have very different functions. Avoid confusing them by checking for signs that a phrase is a gerund or a participial phrase.
- Look for commas that set the phrase apart from the sentence. They can be small clues that you’re looking at a participial phrase.
- Make sure to read over the sentence to see how the phrase acts within the entire sentence. Is it a noun or the subject of the sentence? Or is it describing the noun/subject?
- If you can take the phrase out and still have a complete sentence, you’re probably dealing with a participial phrase.