Commas with participial phrases

Commas With Participial Phrases

Big mistake. Honestly, I don’t know what came over me. There I was, perusing the online edition of The Guardian, looking through the books section, when I chanced upon an interview with Sharon Olds, a poet apparently. (I’d never heard of her and still know nothing about her, for reasons about to become clear.) This was the piece’s intro:

Sharon Olds has the wrong surname. At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice.

Normally I switch off copyediting me when I’m reading for pleasure, but that second sentence activated copyediting me and put him on grammar alert. What we had here, people, was a living, breathing dangler. Not only that, but this baby was big. And so I made the silly mistake of adding a smart-arse comment at the bottom of the article.

So I’m going to have to wait till I’m 70 to see the young woman in Sharon Olds, since that’s what the second sentence of the article says. Will it be worth the wait? I’ll get back about it in 25 years’ time.

I naively imagined the writer of the article, Kate Kellaway, or a Guardian sub-editor would see the comment and amend the second sentence. What actually happened was I got a good pillorying – in a polite Guardian arts pages sort of way, of course. Someone called Cathy replied with:

How boring can some people get? A marvellous interview, some really subtle and complex ideas shining through, and then your response.

Participial Phrases: Definition and Examples

A participial phrase or clause is a wonderful tool for writers because it gives color and action to a sentence.

By employing verbals—words derived from a verb—along with other grammatical elements, an author can craft clauses that function as an adjective, modifying nouns and pronouns.

The participial phrase contains a participle and the other words in the phrase that modify the noun or pronoun. They can't stand alone as complete sentences.

Participial phrases or clauses consist of a present participle (a verbal ending in “ing”) or past participle (a verbal ending in “en” “ed,” “d,” “t,” “n,” or “ne”), plus modifiers, objects, and complements. A participle may be followed by an adverb, a prepositional phrase, an adverb clause, or any combination of these. They are set off by commas and function the same way adjectives do in a sentence.

  • Past-participial phraseInvented by an Indiana housewife in 1889, the first dishwasher was driven by a steam engine.
  • Present-participial phraseWorking before unfriendly crowds, the referee has orders to exude poise under the most trying circumstances.

Here, for example, the participial phrase consists of a present participle (holding), an object (the flashlight), and an adverb (steadily):

  • Holding the flashlight steadily, Jenny approached the strange creature.

In the next sentence, the participial phrase includes a present participle (making), an object (a great ring), and a prepositional phrase (of white light):

  • Jenny waved the flashlight over her head, making a great ring of white light.

Participial phrases can appear in one of three places within a sentence, but be careful not to risk awkwardness or confusion by placing it too far from the word it modifies.

For example, a participial phrase that indicates a cause usually precedes the main clause and sometimes follows the subject, but only rarely appears at the end of the sentence. No matter where they are, they always modify a subject.

Correctly punctuating a sentence that contains such a clause depends on where it is placed in reference to the subject.

Before the main clause, the participial phrase is followed by a comma:

  • Speeding down the highway, Bob didn't notice the police car. “

After the main clause, it is preceded by a comma:

  • “The gamblers silently arranged their cards, losing themselves in thought. “

In mid-sentence position, it is set off by commas before and after:

  • “The real estate agent, thinking of her profit potential, decided not to buy the property.”

In each sentence below, the participial phrase clearly modifies the subject (“my sister”) and suggests a cause:

  • Discouraged by the long hours and low pay, my sister finally quit her job.
  • My sister, discouraged by the long hours and low pay, finally quit her job.

But consider what happens when the participial phrase moves to the end of the sentence:

  • My sister finally quit her job, discouraged by the long hours and low pay.

Here the logical order of cause-effect is reversed, and as a result, the sentence may be less effective than the first two versions. While the sentence absolutely works grammatically, some may misread that the job is feeling discouraged, instead of the sister.

Although participial phrases can be an effective tool, beware. A misplaced or dangling participial phrase can cause embarrassing errors. The easiest way to tell whether a phrase is being used correctly is to look at the subject it is modifying. Does the relationship make sense?

  • Dangling phrase: Reaching for a glass, the cold soda called my name.
  • Corrected phrase: Reaching for a glass, I could hear the cold soda calling my name.

The first example is illogical; a bottle of soda can't reach for a glass—but a person can pick up that glass and fill it.

Be careful when combining sentences and converting one to a participial phrase to keep the subject of the sentence that goes with the adjectival phrase. For instance, you wouldn't want the following sentences:

  • I curled my toes and squinted.
  • The doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.
  • Curling my toes and squinting, the doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.

Here the participial phrase refers to the doctor when it should refer to I—a pronoun that's not in the sentence. This kind of problem is called a dangling modifier, dangling participle, or misplaced modifier.

We can correct this dangling modifier either by adding I to the sentence or by replacing the participial phrase with an adverb clause:

  • Curling my toes and squinting, I waited for the doctor to puncture my arm with a needle.
  • As I curled my toes and squinted, the doctor prepared to puncture my arm with a needle.

Participial Phrases? C’mon, You Made that Up

February 6, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill last modified February 25, 2011

I promise they’re real, these creatures called participial phrases. And I’m willing to bet you’ve used them many times in your writing and in your speaking.

I wanted to talk about them now because I’ve recently read a succession of manuscripts in which they’ve been used, but not used correctly. I most often find participial phrases used without commas or constructed so that two actions look as though they’re performed concurrently, even though with the particular sentence construction, such would be impossible.

  • A few examples to familiarize yourself with these oddly named phrases—
  • Walking to the lake, Fred imagined making the perfect dive.
  • Lysette, saddened by her dog’s death, vowed to never own another pet.
  • The twins, hoping for candy, received baked potatoes instead.
  • The twins, determined to prevail, begged for chocolate.
  • Jane declared that love was more than a feeling, hoping desperately that her words were true.
  • They look familiar, these participial phrases, don’t they?

We use them often. They’re modifiers of nouns and pronouns. Yet, they aren’t one-word modifiers as other adjectives are.

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They’re phrases—containing either a past or present participle (a verb form)—that modify a noun or pronoun. The weight they carry in the sentence is secondary to the main clause.

That is, the information conveyed by a participial phrase is not the main thrust of the sentence.

In the first example, walking to the lake modifies the noun Fred. Walking is a present participle—it promotes the image that what Fred is doing is ongoing. (Present participles always end in -ing.) The participial phrase consists of the entire phrase, not only the present participle.

In the second example, saddened by her dog’s death modifies Lysette. Saddened is a past participle. Using a past participle rather than a present one shows that the action was performed in the past and has been completed.

(Regular past participles are created by adding -ed to the present form of the verb. Irregular past participles, however, are not guided by a rule. If you don’t know the past participle of a verb, you can look up the verb in a dictionary.

Wear, dive, and go have irregular past participles—worn, dived and dove, and gone.)

  1. Participial phrases can include either past or present participles or both.
  2. London’s most notorious jewel thief, tired and hoping to rest, raced the streets ahead of Inspector Andersen.
  3. *******

You might recognize the format for participial phrases from advice about dangling modifiers. What is the modifier that dangles? It’s a participial phrase.

Dangling Modifiers
Participial phrases are left dangling when the noun or pronoun they actually modify isn’t the one that should be modified in order for the sentence to make sense.

It happens when the sentence construction connects the wrong words. Typically, in a dangling modifier, the participial phrase should be modifying the subject of the sentence but seems to modify something else instead.

 The following are examples of dangling modifiers. (This construction is incorrect.)

  • Tripping over her shoes, the loose laces gave Jane a tumble. X
  • Eating pineapple, the boy’s chin dripped juice. X
  • Not prepared for it, the exam proved tough. X

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.
  • Thrilled to win the prize, Mary tripped when she ran up the stairs.
  • 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.
  1. Rewrite for clarity:
  2. Exhausted after two hours of running, Sandra's husband collapsed at the finish line.
  3.                                     or
  4. 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.

Commas With Participial Phrases

Sometimes you need a comma with participial phrases, and sometimes you don’t. A participle is a word formed from a verb which can be used as an adjective. The two types of participles are the present participle (ending ing) and the past participle (usually ending -ed, -d, -t, -en, or -n).

“Making me laugh” is a participial phrase because it starts with the participle “making.” Participial phrases can appear anywhere in a sentence.

The problem with sentence-ending participial phrases is that writers often add such a phrase as an afterthought, and they often omit a needed comma. You can’t just stick on a phrase somewhere without paying attention to punctuation.

If a participial phrase comes at the end of a sentence, use a comma — unless the phrase is restrictive. When your sentence ends with a participial phrase, you need to decide if the phrase contains extra information or crucial information.

If it’s added information, add a comma.

A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence. You could say, “The boy who fell off his bike wished he had stayed home.” Here, the “who” clause is restrictive: It defines which particular boy wished he had stayed home, so you can’t delete the clause, nor do you use commas around it.

A nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information. Such clauses are usually surrounded by, or preceded by, commas.

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An example is the “which” clause in this sentence: “The lake, which lies twenty miles from the capital, is famous for its boating festival.” The “which” clause is surrounded by commas.

It contains additional information that is not necessary to understand the sentence, so you can delete the clause if you want.

It can be easy to get confused about restrictive and nonrestrictive elements, so remember this: If it’s extra information, use extra commas.

How to use participial phrases in your writing

  • Before I explain what the problem with participial phrases is, let me start with some definitions so we’re all on the same page.
  • What is a participle?
  • Participles are verbs that function as adjectives, which means that they modify a noun or a pronoun.
  • There are two kinds of participles:
  • Present participle: verbs ending in –ing. Example: The smiling woman.
  • Past participle: verbs ending in –ed (except for some irregular verbs). Example: The washed dishes.
  1. What is a participial phrase?
  2. A participial phrase is a phrase containing a past or a present participle.
  3. Examples:
  4. Exhausted after twenty hours of work, he collapsed as soon as he got home.
  5. Floating in the pool, she looked up at the blue sky.

  6. What’s the problem with participles / participial phrases?

You’ve probably heard of dangling participles, but participles can create other problems in fiction too. Let’s take a look at the major issues.

PROBLEM #1: DANGLING PARTICIPLES

Participle constructions can result in what’s called a dangling participle. That happens when the noun (or pronoun) the participle phrase should modify isn’t actually in the sentence. As a result, the participle is left dangling and ends up modifying the wrong subject.

  • Example:
  • Slipping into bed, Maggie was still on Anna’s mind.
  • The participial phrase modifies Maggie; however, it’s Anna, not Maggie, who’s slipping into bed.
  • Possible rewrites:
  • Slipping into bed, Anna still thought of Maggie.
  • When Anna slipped into bed, Maggie was still on her mind.
  • Another common source for dangling participles are body parts.
  • Example:
  • Sucking in a breath, Susan’s eyes snapped open.
  • It’s Susan—not her eyes—who’s sucking in a breath.
  • Possible rewrite:

Susan sucked in a breath. Her eyes snapped open.

PROBLEM #2: IMPOSSIBLE ACTIONS

One important thing you should understand about participle phrases is that they always indicate simultaneity. The action in the participial phrase and the action in the main clause happen at the same time.

  1. If you use a participial phrase for sequential or consecutive actions—actions that happen one after the other—you’re creating a sentence that is physically impossible.
  2. Example:
  3. Unlocking the door, she went straight to bed.
  4. She unlocks the door first and then goes to bed, so we can’t use a participle construction in this sentence.
  5. Possible rewrites:
  6. She unlocked the door and went straight to bed.
  7. After she had unlocked the door, she went straight to bed.
  8. Incorrectly used participles are common with dialogue tags.
  9. Example:
  10. “Don’t tempt me,” she said, laughing.
  11. Since she can’t talk and laugh at the same time, you should rewrite the sentence.
  12. Possible rewrite:

“Don’t tempt me.” She laughed.

PROBLEM #3: OVERUSE OF PARTICIPIAL PHRASES

Some editors declare participial phrases the mark of an amateur and advise authors to never, ever use them. I find that a bit extreme. But it’s definitely true that overusing participial phrases is a bad habit for many new writers. Some authors even begin every other sentence with a participle in an attempt to vary sentence construction.

The problem is that too many participles create a monotonous rhythm that readers will notice—at least unconsciously. They’ll be ripped from the story for a moment while they think about the pattern of your sentences.

That’s why most editors advise writers to use participial phrases sparingly. Theresa Stevens of Edittorrent, for example, suggests keeping it around one usage per five to ten pages. That, of course, is just a rule of thumb, but it’s a good reminder to find better ways to vary sentence structure.

PROBLEM #4: BURYING IMPORTANT ACTIONS

When we read, we always pay more attention to the main clause while we consider subordinate clauses to be less important. If you put an interesting action into a participial phrase, you’re essentially burying it and making it appear less important than it actually is.

So, to create more engaging prose, make sure you put important ideas into main clauses, not participial phrases.

Problem #5: INCORRECT PUNCTUATION

Participial phrases can come at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a sentence. Most often, separate them from the main clause with a comma. Here’s how to correctly punctuate sentences with participial phrases:

  • If the participial phrase precedes the main clause, use a comma after the participial phrase.

Example:

Hoping for a treat, the dog fetched the ball.

  • If you have a participial phrase in the middle of a sentence, use two commas—one before and one after the participial phrase.

Example:

The dog, hoping for a treat, fetched the ball.

  • If the participial phrase follows the main clause, use a comma before the participial phrase.
  • Example:
  • The dog fetched the ball, hoping for a treat.
  • If you wouldn’t use a comma with this last example, you’d basically say that it’s the ball—not the dog—that is hoping for a treat.
  • There are two exceptions when you don’t use a comma:
  • If the participial phrase comes at the end of a sentence and follows immediately after the noun it modifies, don’t use a comma.

Example:

Sarah often saw the dog fetching the ball.

  • If the participial phrase is a restrictive one, don’t use a comma.
  1. Example:
  2. The dog fetching the ball was mine.
  3. Summary
  4. So, take a look at the participial phrases in your manuscript. Make sure you…
  • use them sparingly;
  • avoid dangling participles;
  • use them only for actions that can happen at the same time;
  • avoid using them for important actions;
  • punctuate them correctly.

The Participle Phrase

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Recognize a participle phrase when you see one

A participle phrase will begin with a present or past participle. If the participle is present, it will dependably end in ing. Likewise, a regular past participle will end in a consistent ed. Irregular past participles, unfortunately, conclude in all kinds of ways [although this list will help].

Since all phrases require two or more words, a participle phrase will often include objects and/or modifiers that complete the thought. Here are some examples:

  • Crunching caramel corn for the entire movie
  • Washed with soap and water
  • Stuck in the back of the closet behind the obsolete computer

Participle phrases always function as adjectives, adding description to the sentence. Read these examples:

  1. The horse trotting up to the fence hopes that you have an apple or carrot.
  2. Trotting up to the fence modifies the noun horse.
  3. The water drained slowly in the pipe clogged with dog hair.
  4. Clogged with dog hair modifies the noun pipe.
  5. Eaten by mosquitoes, we wished that we had made hotel, not campsite, reservations.
  6. Eaten by mosquitoes modifies the pronoun we.
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Don't mistake a present participle phrase for a gerund phrase

Gerund and present participle phrases are easy to confuse because they both begin with an ing word. The difference is the function that they provide in the sentence. A gerund phrase will always behave as a noun while a present participle phrase will act as an adjective. Check out these examples:

  • Walking on the beach, Delores dodged jellyfish that had washed ashore.
  • Walking on the beach = present participle phrase describing the noun Delores.
  • Walking on the beach is painful if jellyfish have washed ashore.
  • Walking on the beach = gerund phrase, the subject of the verb is.
  • Waking to the buzz of the alarm clock, Freddie cursed the arrival of another Monday.
  • Waking to the buzz of the alarm clock = present participle phrase describing the noun Freddie.
  • Freddie hates waking to the buzz of the alarm clock.
  • Waking to the buzz of the alarm clock = gerund phrase, the direct object of the verb hates.
  • After a long day at school and work, LaShae found her roommate Ben eating the last of the leftover pizza.
  • Eating the last of the leftover pizza = present participle phrase describing the noun Ben.
  • Ben's rudest habit is eating the last of the leftover pizza.
  • Eating the last of the leftover pizza = gerund phrase, the subject complement of the linking verb is.

Punctuate a participle phrase correctly

When a participle phrase introduces a main clause, separate the two sentence components with a comma. The pattern looks like this:

Participle Phrase + , + Main Clause.

Read this example:

Glazed with barbecue sauce, the rack of ribs lay nestled next to a pile of sweet coleslaw.

When a participle phrase concludes a main clause and is describing the word right in front of it, you need no punctuation to connect the two sentence parts. The pattern looks like this:

Main Clause + Ø + Participle Phrase.

Check out this example:

Mariah risked petting the pit bull wagging its stub tail.

But when a participle phrase concludes a main clause and modifies a word farther up in the sentence, you will need a comma. The pattern looks like this:

Main Clause + , + Participle Phrase.

Check out this example:

Cooper enjoyed dinner at Audrey's house, agreeing to a large slice of cherry pie even though he was full to the point of bursting.

Don't misplace or dangle your participle phrases

Participle phrases are the most common modifier to misplace or dangle. In clear, logical sentences, you will find modifiers right next to the words they describe.

Shouting with happiness, William celebrated his chance to interview at SunTrust.

Notice that the participle phrase sits right in front of William, the one doing the shouting.

If too much distance separates a modifier and its target, the modifier is misplaced.

Draped neatly on a hanger, William borrowed Grandpa's old suit to wear to the interview.

The suit, not William, is on the hanger! The modifier must come closer to the word it is meant to describe:

For the interview, William borrowed Grandpa's old suit, which was draped neatly on a hanger.

If the sentence fails to include a target, the modifier is dangling.

Straightening his tie and smoothing his hair, the appointment time for the interview had finally arrived.

We assume William is about to interview, but where is he in the sentence? We need a target for the participle phrase straightening his tie and smoothing his hair.

Straightening his tie and smoothing his hair, William was relieved that the appointment time for the interview had finally arrived.

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Participles // Purdue Writing Lab

Summary:

This handout provides a detailed overview (including descriptions and examples) of gerunds, participles, and infinitives.

A participle is a verbal that is used as an adjective and most often ends in -ing or -ed. The term verbal indicates that a participle, like the other two kinds of verbals, is based on a verb and therefore expresses action or a state of being.

However, since they function as adjectives, participles modify nouns or pronouns. There are two types of participles: present participles and past participles. Present participles end in -ing.

Past participles end in -ed, -en, -d, -t, -n, or -ne as in the words asked, eaten, saved, dealt, seen, and gone.

  • The crying baby had a wet diaper.
  • Shaken, he walked away from the wrecked car.
  • The burning log fell off the fire.
  • 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, Jack rushed to the river.
  • The participial phrase functions as an adjective modifying Jack. Removing (participle) his coat (direct object of action expressed in participle)
  • Delores noticed her cousin walking along the shoreline.
  • The participial phrase functions as an adjective modifying cousin. walking (participle) along the shoreline (prepositional phrase as adverb)
  • Children interested in music early develop strong intellectual skills.
  • The participial phrase functions as an adjective modifying children. interested (in) (participle) music (direct object of action expressed in participle) early (adverb)
  • Having been a gymnast, Lynn knew the importance of exercise.
  • The participial phrase functions as an adjective modifying Lynn. Having been (participle) a gymnast (subject complement for Lynn, via state of being expressed in participle)
  • Placement: In order to prevent confusion, a participial phrase must be placed as close to the noun it modifies as possible, and the noun must be clearly stated.
  • Carrying a heavy pile of books, his foot caught on a step. *
  • Carrying a heavy pile of books, he caught his foot on a step.

In the first sentence, there is no clear indication of who or what is performing the action expressed in the participle carrying. Certainly, foot can't be logically understood to function in this way.

This situation is an example of a dangling modifier error, since the modifier (the participial phrase) is not modifying any specific noun in the sentence and is thus left “dangling.

” Since a person must be doing the carrying for the sentence to make sense, a noun or pronoun that refers to a person must be in the place immediately after the participial phrase, as in the second sentence.

Punctuation: 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 be set off with commas only if the information is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

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