Participial phrases are made of a present participle (VERB-ing)
or past participle (VERB-ed or VERB-en) plus any modifiers that
complete the idea. These phrases serve as adjectives or
adverbs within a sentence and usually need to come next to the
words they describe.
Beginning participial phrases:
These must come right before the nouns that they describe.
The phrases are followed commas.
Swinging from the trees, the monkey chattered
- The "monkey" (the noun that follows the phrase) is in
Swinging from the tree, I saw the monkey.
- In this case, "I" (the noun that follows the phrase)
am swinging from the trees, not the monkey.
Working late, Jiang fell asleep at the desk.
Thrilled to win the prize, Mary tripped when
she ran up the stairs.
Driven beyond endurance, Shiu packed his bags
- Shiu is driven beyond endurance.
Note: if the participial phrase
precedes the wrong noun, it is confusing to the reader.
Exhausted after two hours of running, Sandra
saw her husband collapse at the finish line.
- In this case, it seems clear that the
husband is the one who is exhausted, but the
structure of the sentence means that is Sandra.
Rewrite for clarity:
Exhausted after two hours of
running, Sandra's husband collapsed at the
Sandra saw her husband, exhausted after
two hours of running, collapse at the
- This leads to middle participial phrases.
Middle Participial Phrases:
These follow the nouns that they describe and have no commas
around them if the information is necessary to identify or
understand (restrictive meaning) but do have commas around them
if they don't include necessary information (non-restrictive).
The man holding the gun is John Barrett.
- "Holding the gun" helps to identify which
man, so no commas are needed.
The woman wearing a red dress lives in the
- "Wearing a red dress" helps to identify
which woman, so no commas are needed.
The moon robot, activated by a remote switch,
started moving slowly across the surface.
The "moon robot" is already clearly identified, and
"activated by a remote switch" adds information but isn't
necessary for identification, so commas are needed.
Jenna Kim, driven wild with anger, shot her
- Proper nouns, such as "Jenna Kim,"
are considered identified, so a
participial phrase that follows cannot
be necessary for identification and must
Ending Participial Phrases:
These are often set off by commas to emphasize, especially if
they are not directly after the nouns that they modify or
describe, a structure that often occurs. There are no
commas if the information is necessary to identify or if
emphasis is not needed.
I saw the monkey swinging from the trees.
- "Swinging from the trees follows
the noun ("monkey") that it describes,
and no special emphasis seems needed
so no commas are necessary.
Huang followed the crowd, fearing being left behind.
- In this case, "fearing being
left behind" describes "Huang," not
"the crowd," so the comma is
necessary to separate "crowd" from
the phrase. This pause helps the
reader to understand the meaning.
- Note: it's always
better for clarity to put the
participial phrase right next to the
noun it describes, but it is
sometimes awkward to construct such
a sentence when the phrase occurs at
the end of the sentence.
The monkey threw food at the teenagers, provoked by
- A comma follows "teenagers"
to separate it from the
participial phrase and help to
make clear that the "monkey" is
the one provoked.
- Note: the
pronoun "their" also helps to
make the meaning clear.
Maribel cleaned up the milk spilled on the desk.
- There is no comma
because "spilled on the
desk" describes which milk
(not the milk on the floor,
for example) and is
John hit the man waving a gun.
- No commas are used
here because the man has
the gun. This
- Note: a
comma could mean either
that the information is
not identifying or that
John has the gun. In
that case, the participial
phrase would be ambiguous