English Grammar Guide

Participles - Participial Phrases

A participle is a verbal which is used as an adjective and usually ends with -ing or -ed

What is a participle?

A participle is a verbal which is used as an adjective and usually ends with -ing or -ed. (The term verbal indicates that a participle is based on a verb and expresses action or a state of being)   However, as they function as adjectives, participles modify nouns or pronouns. There are two types of participles: present participles and past participles.

Participles may also be identified with a particular voice: active or passive. In English the present participle is essentially an active participle, while the past participle has both active and passive uses. The following examples illustrate this:

  • I saw John eating his dinner. (here, eating is an active participle)

  • I have eaten my dinner. (here, eaten is an active participle here)

  • John was eaten by lions. (here, eaten is a passive participle)

Present participles end in -ing.
Past participles of regular verbs end in -ed, whereas past participles of irregular verbs can end with -en, -d, -t, -n, or -ne (for example, eaten, saved, dealt, seen, and gone).

  • The crying baby had a wet nappy.

  • Shaken, he walked away from his wrecked car.

  • The smouldering log fell onto the floor.

  • Smiling, she hugged the panting dog.

A participial phrase is a group of words consisting of a participle and the modifier(s) and/or (pro)noun(s) or noun phrase(s) that function as the direct object(s), indirect object(s), or complement(s) of the action or state expressed in the participle, such as:

  • Removing his coat, Paul rushed to the river. 
    (Here, the participial phrase 'Removing his coat' acts as an adjective, which modifies the noun 'Paul'.)

  • Susan noticed her cousin walking along the street.
    (Here, the participial phrase functions as an adjective which modifies the noun 'cousin'.)

  • Children interested in music when they are young develop strong intellectual skills. 
    (Here, the participial phrase functions as an adjective modifying the noun 'children'.)

  • Having been a gymnast, Annabel knew the importance of exercise.
    (Here, the participial phrase functions as an adjective, modifying Annabel.)

In order to avoid confusion, a participial phrase must be placed as close to the noun which it modifies as possible, and the noun must be clearly defined.

When a participial phrase begins a sentence, a comma should be placed after the phrase.

  • Arriving at the store, I found that it was closed.

  • Washing and polishing the car, Frank developed sore muscles.

If the participle or participial phrase comes in the middle of a sentence, it should only be separated with commas if the information is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

  • Malcolm, watching an old movie, drifted in and out of sleep.

  • The church, destroyed by a fire, was never rebuilt.

If the participial phrase affects the meaning of the sentence, no commas should be used:

  • The student earning the highest grade point average will receive a special award.

  • The guy wearing the chicken costume is my cousin.

If a participial phrase comes at the end of a sentence, a comma is usually placed before the phrase if it modifies an earlier word in the sentence but not if the phrase directly follows the word it modifies.

  • The local residents often saw George wandering through the streets.
    (The phrase modifies 'George', not 'residents'.)

  • Peter nervously watched the woman, unsettled by her silence.
    (The phrase modifies 'Peter', not 'woman'.)