Participial Phrases

In order to better yourself as both a writer and verbal communicator, always remember to take some time to improve your understanding of the English language, as your command of language is your one and only weapon in the war against obscurity and incoherency.

Today, we at TCK Publishing wish to educate you on an oft-overlooked subject of English grammar: participle phrases, whose mastery you will soon learn is essential to a better understanding of language and writing.

Wait, What’s a Participle?

Simply put, a participle is a verb that functions as an adjective in a sentence. In order to act like adjectives, these verbs take on suffixes like -ing, -ed, -en, -d, -t, -n, or -ne. “Heal” becomes “healing,” “light” becomes “lighted,” “rise” becomes “risen,” and so on and so forth.

Simply put, a participle is simply any verb that modifies a noun or pronoun. Almost any verb can function as a participle if written correctly, but be careful to use the correct suffixes! Otherwise, you end up with nonsense like “healen,” “rised,” or “lightne.”

Participle Phrases

participial phrase is a phrase that starts with a participle (verb) and includes modifiers, objects, and/or complements.

Remember, participles are verbs that act like adjectives. So that means a participial phrase is a phrase that starts with a verb, and the entire phrase acts like an adjective by modifying a noun or pronoun.

I guarantee that you’ve used participle phrases before and not even realized you were doing it! They’re remarkably common, so I’m certain that once you read our examples, you’ll catch on quickly:

Running away from the bullies, John decided he never wanted to feel that way again.

Sally took off her shoes, drained from the long day at work.

Bob reached for the cereal box stored in the back of the cupboard.

Torn at the seams, his coat had seen better days.

Rules for Participial Phrases

Phrases image

Here are some rules you need to remember when you use participial phrases.

1. Use Commas Correctly with Participial Phrases

You have to use commas correctly with participles based on where they appear in a sentence.

Participial Phrases at the Beginning of a Sentence

Participial phrases must be separated by a comma if the participle is the first word of the sentence, such as in the sentence,

Torn at the seams, his coat had seen better days.”

Notice how torn at the seams is acting like an adjective by modifying the noun “coat.” There must be a comma at the end of the participial phrase here, because that phrase comes before the subject and verb of the sentence.

Participial Phrases in the Middle of a Sentence

Participles or participial phrases placed in the middle of a sentence must be separated with commas only when the information is NOT essential to the meaning of the sentence.

His hair, bleached by the sun, was more blonde than it had ever been before.

Little Debbie, staring out the window, didn’t know what the answer was.

If a participial phrase is required for the reader to understand the meaning of the sentence, then no commas should be used:

The athlete practicing the most usually wins the competition.

There are some sentences for which you can use or not use commas around a participial phrase depending on your personal preference. Here’s an example:

The woman’s necklace sparkling in the moonlight captured everyone’s attention.

The woman’s necklace, sparkling in the moonlight, captured everyone’s attention.

Note: Both sentences are correct here. It’s up to you whether to use a comma or not for participial phrases occuring in the middle of a sentence that are not necessary for understanding the meaning of a sentence, but which do clarify the meaning of the sentence. For example, you could remove the phrase sparkling in the moonlight and the sentence would still make sense—it just becomes even more clear when you add in the participial phrase.

2. Put Participial Phrases Close to the Noun

Participial phrases should always be placed as close to the noun they are modifying as possible.

For example:

Bob reached for the cereal box stored in the back of the cupboard

That’s perfect usage of the participial phrase because the participle (verb) immediately follows the noun. This is so important because otherwise it can be unclear what the participial phrase is modifying, confusing your readers and bogging down your writing.

Here’s an example of a participial phrase from earlier that’s probably a bit too far from the noun it’s modifying:

Sally took off her shoes, drained from the long day at work.

Notice how “drained from a long day at work” is a participial phrase modifying the noun “Sally.” The problem is, it comes right after the noun shoes, which could confuse your readers.

A clearer way to write this participial phrase so it’s absolutely clear the phrase is modifying the noun “Sally” would be to write it like this:

Sally, drained from the long day at work, took off her shoes.

However, writing the participial this phrase may get awkward sometimes, so you’ll have to make a judgment call about where to place the participial phrase based. As long as you write it correctly and it’s clear which noun the participial phrase is modifying, you should be good to go.

If you wanted to improve the sentence and the use of the participial phrase so that it sounds more natural in this case, you could write:

Sally took her shoes off, drained from a long day at work.

By putting the word “off” in between the noun shoes and the participial phrase, it becomes obvious to the reader that the participle is modifying the noun Sally.

Participial Phrases at the End of a Sentence

When a participial phrase is used at the end of a sentence, you should place a comma before the phrase if it modifies an earlier word in the sentence, but NOT if the phrase immediately follows the word it modifies.

Jean knew she had to warn the men working on the electrical lines.

In this example, the phrase working on the electrical lines modifies men, so it doesn’t need a comma.

Anthony wait patiently for his wife to arrive, frustrated by her lack of timeliness.

In this example, the phrase frustrated by her lack of timeliness modifies Anthony, so it needs a comma to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.

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