Article Index


Participial Phrases

You probably have been using participial phrases unknowingly, both in your papers and in the activities above. Because participial phrases are so convenient and effective, they deserve a closer look.

Ruined by the recession, Mr. Alvarez closed the door to his shop, turning the key in the lock.

The preceding contains two participial phrases, one at the beginning and one at the end, and the base clause is between them. Read the following fragments and notice what they are missing.

Mr. Alvarez ruined by the recession.

Mr. Alvarez turning the key in the lock.

If you said that both word groups need to have was or is or some other word inserted after the subject, you're well on your way to understanding what participles are and how they work in sentences. What you've seen is that a participle is part of a verb, that by itself aparticipal can't serve as the main verb of a sentence.

Because they're so convenient and effective, participals deserve a closer look.

You may also have noticed that there are two different kinds of participles: present and past. A present participle is formed by adding ing to the verb stem. The result is the form that would be used with the helping verb is. The past participle is the verb form that would be used with the helping verb have, and it is usually, but not always, formed by adding ed to the verb stem. The chart below shows how this works.

Verb Stem Present Participle Past Participle


(is) forming

(have) formed


(is) losing

(have) lost


(is) climbing

(have) climbed


(is) ringing

(have) rung

While the participle can't serve as the main verb of a sentence without its helper, it can be used, either alone or in combination with other words, as a modifier:

[Formed over ten thousand years ago,] these lava beds have changed very little.

Every evening we could hear a bell [ringing somewhere in the distance.]

In the preceding sentences, the bracketed word groups are called participial phrases. The underlined words are those the phrases modify. It's important that your reader can immediately see exactly what the phrase modifies. Notice the possibilities for confusion in the following sentences.

Bill found a rusty pocket knife climbing the volcano.

Curling gently around the mountains, Sarah watched the clouds.

In both cases, confusion results from the fact that the phrases are positioned too far from the words they modify. Can you revise the sentences to eliminate the problem? If not, or if you have problems with the following activities, review the discussion of Misrelated Modifiers in Six Problem Areas.


3.18 Bracket each participial phrase, and italicize the word it modifies. If you find a misrelated modifier, rewrite the sentence to eliminate the problem.

a. Tired from the long ride, the travelers stopped at a small cafe surrounded by trucks.

b. Out of a small purse decorated with flowers, Andreana took a little book bound in green plastic.

c. Hoping to avoid the heavy traffic, the back roads were selected for our trip home.

d. Stripped of all but his dignity, Marquez took the beating in silence, never looking down, never showing his pain.

e. This new home, built of the finest straw, will withstand even the strongest wind.

3.19 Combine each of the following groups of sentences into a single sentence containing at least one participial phrase.

a. The watch had a blue face. The face was scratched from years of use.

b. An old Harley Davidson pulled up beside me. It was covered with dust. The dust was light red.

c. The new lion looks sleepy. He is lying in the corner of his cage. He is flicking his tail. He is retired from a career in the circus.

d. Under every stone we found worms. The worms were wiggling. They were small. They were pink. Their wiggling was frantic.

e. Dr. Higginson was leaning on the lectern. He was discussing the paintings of Edgar Degas. He was praising the painter's sense of color and of movement.

f. The main burner was clogged. It was clogged with grease. It was clogged with food particles. These particles were tiny. They prevented the flow of gas.

g. The Red Sox were refreshed. They were refreshed by the cool autumn air. They staged a rally. The rally catapulted them into first place.

h. The singer swung his arm. He swung it like a windmill. The windmill was in a tornado. The arm was his left one. He held a microphone in his right hand. He sometimes caressed it with his lips. He sometimes shook it. The shaking was violent. It was at the audience.