MPC English & Study Skills Center

 

Participial Phrases

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 at me.

  • The "monkey" (the noun that follows the phrase) is in the trees.

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.

  • Jiang was working late.

Thrilled to win the prize, Mary tripped when she ran up the stairs.

  • Mary won the prize.

Driven beyond endurance, Shiu packed his bags and left.

  • Shiu is driven beyond endurance.

Noteif 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 finish line.

                                    or

Sandra saw her husband, exhausted after two hours of running, collapse at the finish line.

  • 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 neighborhood.

  • "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 husband.

  • Proper nouns, such as "Jenna Kim," are considered identified, so a participial phrase that follows cannot be necessary for identification and must have commas.

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 their actions

  • 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 identifying.

John hit the man waving a gun.

  • No commas are used here because the man has the gun.  This information is identifying. 
  • 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 or confusing.
 
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