Today the Divas discuss participial phrases, how they function, and how to fix them when something goes wrong.
Participles are wonderful. In fact, many authors love them. But as with most things we love, excess can lead to problems. This is especially true with participial phrasing. All things considered, there is a lot of room to go wrong both technically and substantively when using participles, especially participial phrases.
So what is a participle anyway?
Well, simply put, a participle is a verbal that is used as an adjective. In other words, it’s a word or phrase that modifies nouns and pronouns. They differ from gerunds, which are verbals that act as nouns.
Gerund: Let’s go swimming.
Participle: I felt sorry for the sobbing child.
Seems straightforward, doesn’t it? And it is. Where most authors stumble with participles is with the oft-used but little understood participial phrase.
A participial phrase is made up of a participle and the words that modify it, and the phrase modifies a specific noun or pronoun. They can be present (ing-form) or past (ed-form).
Remember, participles act as adjectives. Because of this, all kinds of problems can erupt.
Issue #1: Non-simultaneous Participial Phrasing
The action in a subordinate clause involving a participial phrase is connected to the action in the main clause. The reason for this is because one subject is doing both actions and the actions are implied to be active, present and simultaneous. Let’s look at some examples.
Wrong: Jogging to the door, Sally yanked on her pants.
Is it possible for Sally to jog and pull on her pants at the same time? If not, what you have is a non-simultaneous participle. To correct this sentence, it is necessary to remove the participial phrasing entirely.
Right: Sally yanked on her pants and jogged to the door.
Wrong: The woman, screaming at the top of her lungs, calmly ate her meal.
Is it possible to eat and scream at the same time? No, it is not. This is a non-simultaneous participle.
Right: The woman screamed at the top of her lungs and then calmly ate her meal.
Wrong: Jane ran down the stairs, slamming out of her apartment with a huff.
Is it possible to run down the stairs and slam out of the apartment at the same time? No. This, also, is a non-simultaneous participle.
Right: Jane ran down the stairs and slammed out of her apartment with a huff.
Diva Jen wrote a wonderful article about non-simultaneous participles that you can find here if you like more information on this grammatical issue.
Rule of usage #1: The action in a subordinate clause involving a participial phrase must happen at the same time as the action in the clause it modifies.
Issue #2: Dangling Participles
The next issue common with the usage of participial phrases is the dreaded dangling participle. In a subordinate clause involving a participial phrase, the dependent clause modifies the subject of the main clause.
Let’s look at an example of a dangling participial phrase.
Wrong: Wishing for a better vehicle, the engine revved.
Who is wishing for a better vehicle? The engine? A dangling participle happens when it is unclear which noun or pronoun the participial phrase modifies. To fix this, it is necessary to clarify the subject of the sentence.
Right: Wishing for a better vehicle, Rob revved the engine.
Rule of usage #2: Clearly define the noun/pronoun that a participial phrase modifies.
Issue #3: Misplaced Modifiers
The third area that participles can cause issues are as misplaced modifiers. When the misplaced modifier is a participle or participial phrase, it usually happens because of punctuation (or lack thereof) or placement of the participle in the sentence. Let’s look at an example.
Possibly wrong (depending on the author’s meaning): James ran into a man wondering how he was going to get home.
In this sentence, who is wondering how they are going to get home? James or the man he ran into? As written, it is the man who was run into who is doing the wondering. If the author intended James to be the one who is wondering, this would be a case of a misplaced modifier. Either way, the sentence should be revised for clarity.
Right: James, wondering how he was going to get home, ran into a man.
Right: James ran into a man, wondering how he was going to get home. (This is still not as clear as I’d prefer. The first option is better.)
Right: James ran into a man who was wondering how he was going to get home. (In this instance, it’s better to use a progressive tense to clarify the sentence instead of a participle.)
Remember: Always write clearly and make your meaning precise.
Rule of usage #3: Put participles as close as possible to the noun/pronoun that they modify.
Issue #4: Participial Phrasing and Compound Subjects
When you have a compound subject that is modified by a subordinate clause involving a participial phrase, the subjects are doing the action in both clauses.
Wrong: Thinking of her mom, Tom and Carol flipped through the photo album.
Is Tom thinking of her mom too or just Carol? To fix it, the participle should be moved next to the noun it modifies or “her” should be changed to “their.”
Right: Carol, thinking of her mom, flipped through the album with Tom.
Right: Thinking of their mom, Tom and Carol flipped through the photo album.
Rule of usage #4: If using a compound subject, make sure the participle modifies the correct subject(s).
Issue #5: Participial Phrases and Compound Predicates
It’s easy to cause problems in a sentence when too much action is going on or if the action in the participial phrase is too short in duration to happen concurrently with the action in the main clause.
Wrong: Waking up, Donna stretched, yawned, and went into the bathroom to brush her teeth.
Is all of that action a part of Donna’s wake up routine, or did she wake up long before she completed all of those actions?
Right: Donna stretched as she woke up, yawning loudly, and then she went into the bathroom to brush her teeth.
Wrong: Slamming his hand down on the table, Harmon rolled his eyes, sneered, and said in a snarling tone, “I want you to get out of my house right now.”
Does the action of slamming one’s hand on a table last as long as the action in the main clause? No, it doesn’t. To revise this, the sentence should be broken into two parts.
Right: Slamming his hand down on the table, Harmon rolled his eyes. He sneered and said in a snarling tone, “I want you to get out of my house right now.”
Rule of usage #5: When using a subordinate clause involving a participial phrase, avoid adding too much action so you do not cause a case of non-simultaneity.
Rule of usage #6: Make sure the action in the subordinate clause involving a participial phrase is of similar duration to the action in the clause it modifies.
Now, let’s talk about the punctuation rules that govern participles and participial phrases.
#1 – If the participial phrase is separated from the noun/pronoun it modifies, use a comma.
e.g. Samuel sat on his couch with a sigh, wishing he was anywhere but home.
e.g. Arthur hated all of his courses, thinking they were a total waste of his time.
e.g. “Hey, how have you been?” Beth asked, quickly walking toward them.
#2 – If a participial phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence, do not use a comma.
e.g. Girls wishing to try out for the swim team will need their parents’ permission.
#3 – If a participial phrase interrupts the sentence and is non-essential, it should be set off with commas.
e.g. Sally, trembling with fear, flipped over her test and looked at the grade.
#4 – Introductory participial phrases should be set off with commas.
e.g. Walking to her class, Brittany thought about how she was going to ask her professor for extra credit.
e.g. Stuttering, Evan tried to get through his speech.
#5 – If the participle sits next to the noun/pronoun it modifies and is not a part of a subordinate clause, do not use a comma
e.g. Anthony sipped his drink and stared at the woman wearing a pink dress. (If you used a comma to set off this participle phrase, it would mean that Anthony was wearing the dress, not the woman. For clarity and to avoid inadvertent humor, I would recommend rendering the sentence thus: Anthony sipped his drink and stared at the woman who was wearing a pink dress.)
e.g. The woman shushed her wailing child.
I would be remiss if I didn’t close this article with a word of caution. From a substantive standpoint, participles, gerunds, and present and past progressive tenses (am going, was thinking) create a “wave” in the narrative flow. This is not necessarily a bad thing. These parts of speech and tenses can be used in many meaningful and correct ways, but be careful. When overused, participles, especially, can give a reader a serious case of seasickness, or ing’ing-itis. The biggest culprit of this is the double participle followed by an introductory participle. When this type of structure is mixed with progressive tenses and gerunds, it’s a recipe for alienating your readers.
For example: Jackson was strolling down the boardwalk, observing the locals. Despising their lack of manners, he wished he could educate them, giving them the tools they needed to get along in proper society. Sneering at the frolicking children along the seashore, he was rolling his eyes and haughtily sniffing.
Participles and gerunds and progressive tenses, oh my! Did your eyes roll up into the back of your head when you read that? I know mine did! Don’t do this to your readers. Just don’t.
Better: Jackson strolled down the boardwalk, observing the locals. He despised their lack of manners and wished he could educate them and give them the tools they needed to get along in proper society. The sneering gentleman rolled his eyes and sniffed haughtily as he stared at the children frolicking along the seashore.
Participles and participial phrasing are powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. Just make sure to use them properly and judiciously. Add them when you want to improve the flow of your story, avoid wordiness or when they are necessary to clarify your meaning, but do not use participle phrasing to add an air of sophistication to your writing. It will always fall flat and feel awkward. Always.