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Participial Phrases — All You Need to Know

Participial Phrases — All You Need to Know

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What is a Participial Phrase?

A participial phrase is a group of words that begins with a participle and modifies a noun or pronoun in the sentence. It always functions as an adjective. Participial phrases can add color and movement to your descriptive writing.
Participial Phrases 101


Here are some examples:
(Participial phrases are in bold.)

My mother smiled bravely, blinking away tears.

Broken in heart, she waved goodbye.

To learn more about participial phrases, we must first know what a participle is.


What is a Participle?

A participle is a word configured from a verb which acts as an adjective. It is a verbal a word which comes from a verb but is not used as a verb.

For example, the verb to break has these forms:

Break (infinitive)
Breaks (present)
Breaking (progressive)
Broke (past)

The participles of this verb are:

Breaking (present participle)
Broken (past participle)

Look at these examples to see how these work as adjectives:

The broken glass lay scattered across the floor.

Here broken describes the noun glass.

The breaking glass resounded through the hall.

Here breaking describes the noun glass.

(This is not to be confused with the gerund breaking which is also a form of the verb that functions as a noun. But more on that later.)

Now we know that participial phrases always begin with participles and that they always function as adjectives. Let’s take a closer look at what adjectives do.

What is an Adjective?

An adjective is a word that describes or modifies a noun or pronoun. It indicates all types of qualities.

Immense, straight, green, and soft are all adjectives.

Adjectives convey descriptions that include hue, number, order, feel, taste, smell, and look of things and can even clarify to whom they belong.

Participial phrases work collectively as adjectives.


Present Participial Phrases

The first type of participial phrase we will examine is the present participial phrase. It will begin with a present participle, which ends in “-ing”, making them fairly easy to identify.



She agreed, nodding her head vigorously.
Rising quickly, the dough was almost ready to bake.
The horse tossed its head, snorting heartily


The Difference Between Present Participles and Gerunds

Although all present participles end in “-ing”, not every word with that ending is a present participle. The present progressive form of a verb ends in “-ing” as well.



He is yearning to learn more about his mysterious past.
The toddler is tripping over the uneven ground.


There are other more complex verb tenses which also include the present progressive form. All of these, however, clearly function as verbs.

Gerunds are another type of verbal word that uses the “-ing” ending. Gerunds and participles tend to cause more confusion as they can both begin phrases. The difference is in how they function.

Gerunds always function as nouns. That means they can be the subject of the sentence or the direct object.


Example of a gerund phrase as the subject:
Hiking this trail will take too long.

Example of a gerund phrase as the direct object:

One of the longer options for us to do is hiking this trail.

A present participial phrase will always work as an adjective; therefore, it will always describe a noun.



Hiking the long trail, Josh felt exhausted.

Here, hiking the long trail describes Josh and what he is doing. The phrase acts as an adjective.


Past Participial Phrases

Past participial phrases begin with past participles. Past participles can have several different endings. The most common endings are “-ed” and “-en” though they can also end simply in “-d” “-t” or “-n”.

Here are some past participles used as adjectives:

The taken goods
A harried mother
Some bent branches
The torn feathers
The sold items

Here are examples of past participial phrases:

The sun, risen over the lake, sparkled on the water below.
The flowers drooped, wilted in the heat.


Participial Phrases Exceptions: Irregular Verbs

Irregular verbs change completely for different tenses, sometimes becoming an entirely different word or just not following the typical spelling rules. This sounds complicated, but it is common in everyday use.


Think of these examples:

To go – goes – going – went (not “goed”)
To catch – catches – catching – caught (not “catched”)

This means that the participles are irregular as well, not following the common spelling rules for past participles.



Verb: Go
Past Participle: Gone

Verb: Catch
Past Participle: Caught


The existence of irregular verbs and participles explains the confusion between, “I saw/I seen,”, and why it is every grammar fanatic’s and teacher’s pet peeve when it is said incorrectly.

Saw is the past tense of the irregular verb see, and seen is the past participle! It is not a verb at all and cannot be used as one. It is an adjective.



Yesterday I saw my neighbor’s dog on the road.
(I is the subject, saw is the past tense verb.)

Having seen my neighbor’s dog on the road, I decided to pay a visit next door.
(Having seen is the beginning of this participial phrase which describes the subject, I.)

You may have noticed that this participial phrase begins with Having seen, a variation which brings us to our next point.


Perfect Participial Phrases

Perfect tenses all use a form of the verb have along with a past participle to indicate which time in the past the action happened.

Here are some examples of perfect tense verbs:

The package has taken a long time to arrive. (present perfect)
The package had taken a long time to arrive. (past perfect)
The package will have taken a long time to arrive. (future perfect)

Now let’s see how the perfect aspect works in perfect participial phrases.

A perfect participial phrase will always begin with “having”, a form of the verb “have” followed by the past participle.

Having done
Having bought
Having cleaned

This is what it looks like in a sentence:
Having done my best, I finally put my pencil down.

Jon lost the staring contest, having blinked.

This is not to be confused with having as a present participle. To be a perfect participle, it must include having plus the past participle.

Having a question, I raised my hand. (present participial phrase)

Having questioned the material, I raised my hand. (perfect participial phrase including having and questioned.)


Punctuation for Participial Phrases

The rules for punctuating a participial phrase are as follows:

If the participial phrase comes at the beginning of the sentence, it should be followed with a comma, and it should be followed immediately by the noun it modifies.


Holding the leash tightly, Maya struggled to control her dog.
Having blown away, the paper was lost forever.

When a participial phrase immediately follows the noun it describes and ends the sentence, or is necessary for the sentence to make sense, no comma or other punctuation is needed.

Springtime is the earth being warmed by the sun.
Friends are family made precious by love.

However, if the participial phrase is not an essential phrase, it should be set apart in commas.

The way to test whether or not a participial phrase is essential is to try deleting it from the sentence and see if the meaning is changed. If it can be deleted, it is a nonessential phrase and should be surrounded by commas.

The blossoms, kissed by the sun, were full and rosy.
(With the phrase deleted: The blossoms were full and rosy.)

To our relief the repairs, having cost a quite a penny, were well done.
(With the phrase deleted: To our relief the repairs were well done.)


Mistakes to Avoid When Using Participial Phrases

There are two common mistakes that can happen when using participial phrases: misplacing or dangling them.

Let’s examine dangling participial phrases.
A participial phrase must always modify (describe) a noun or pronoun. If the noun it is describing is not clearly present in the sentence, the phrase is said to be dangling.


Take these examples:

Having taken her medicine,it was strange that her fever had not relinquished.

The words it and fever are underlined because they are the nouns in the sentence. The participial phrase does not describe either of these nouns.

To test whether a phrase is dangling, try asking if the noun, or nouns, in the sentence are the ones which were _______ (insert the participial phrase).

Did it take her medicine?
Had the fever taken her medicine?

These do not make sense in the context of the sentence. That means the noun that the participial phrase is supposed to describe is not in the sentence and the phrase is dangling.

How could this be changed? We need to add the noun we are describing. Ask, “Who took the medicine?”

Having taken her medicine, Mary thought it seemed strange that her fever had not relinquished.

Here Mary is clearly the one taking the medicine.


Here are some other examples:

Having been vaccinated, the chicken pox came as a surprise. (Neither chicken pox nor surprise were vaccinated.)

Having been vaccinated, Liam was surprised by the chicken pox.

(Here Liam is clearly the one who was vaccinated.)

Being scared, darkness was a depressing time of day. (Darkness is not scared.)

Being scared, the little girl found darkness a depressing time of day.
(Here the little girl is clearly the one who is scared.)


Misplaced Participial Phrases

A misplaced modifier happens when the participial phrase is not near enough to the noun it is describing in the sentence. This can cause confusion about what is being described.

It can make your sentence unclear, perhaps even presenting several meanings, and it will make you look like an amateur writer.


Here is an example of a misplaced participial phrase:

Torn and frayed, Melissa picked up the flag.


The participial phrase in this sentence is describing the flag which was torn and frayed, but because it is not near that noun, and rather is closer to Melissa, it seems to say that Melissa was torn and frayed.

This could be fixed by moving the phrase closer to the noun it modifies.

Melissa picked up the torn and frayed flag.


The nouns could also be rearranged for the modified noun to be closer to the modifying phrase.
Torn and frayed, the flag was picked up by Melissa.


Here are some other examples:

Folded neatly over the chair, Karen forgot to put on her shawl. (It sounds as though Karen were folded neatly over the chair.)

Karen forgot to put on her shawl, folded neatly over the chair.
(Here it is clearly the shawl which is folded over the chair.)

I carried the extra groceries, pushing the loaded cart.
(It sounds as though the groceries are pushing the cart.)

Pushing the loaded cart, I carried the extra groceries.


The simple difference between a dangling modifier and a misplaced modifier is that a dangling modifying phrase does not include the noun it is modifying in the sentence at all. A misplaced phrase is just not near enough to the noun it is describing to be clear.


Participial Phrases: Overview

Participial phrases are groups of words that begin with a participle and work together as an adjective to modify a noun or pronoun. They can be placed at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a sentence.

There are three types of participial phrases: Present, Past, and Perfect. There are also two common mistakes that can be made when using participial phrases: dangling and misplacing.

Both of these mistakes can be avoided by paying attention to the noun you are trying to describe.


Why are Participial Phrases Important?

What can a participial phrase do for your writing?

A participial phrase can describe a character before he is even named.


Laughing with gusto, Ron beamed out at his friends and held his glass high.

(Ron is being seen as a loud, jolly guy before he is even introduced in the sentence.)

A participial phrase can convey information concisely.

Example using a participial phrase:
Having managed a business and started one himself, Mr. Meyer was more than qualified for the job.

Example without using a participial phrase:
Mr. Meyer had managed a business previously and had started one himself, so he was more than qualified for the job.

Participial phrases can help with ordering events chronologically and concisely.

Example using a participial phrase:
Having been timid since her breakdown, Skye was nervous about the upcoming audition.

Example without using a participial phrase:
Skye had been timid since her nervous breakdown, so she was nervous about the upcoming audition.


Why Is It Important to Learn About Participial Phrases?

Participial phrases, like most structural possibilities, should not be overused. They often lend themselves toward the passive voice, and that could become monotonous and dull. A good writer, though, will learn to use them sparingly and effectively.

When occasionally tossed into a sentence, a participial phrase can be a jewel of description.

They can be emotionally powerful as they describe the actions or being of a character almost as a side note, as though you are having a private glance into a deeper scene.

Variety is the spice of life, and writers should learn as many techniques as they can to add flavor to their writing.

Here are further examples for each type of participial phrase we discussed:


Further Examples of Participial Phrases


Present participial phrases

Stretching as far as she could, the petite girl could still hardly peer over the ledge.

The petite girl, stretching as far as she could, could still hardly see over the ledge.

The wind whistled, blowing through the trees.

Past participial phrases

Stricken and silent, the grieving mother bent over her daughter’s still form.

The grieving mother, stricken and silent, bent over her daughter’s still form.

Over the still form of her daughter bent the grieving mother, stricken and silent.


Perfect participial phrases

Having eaten the last piece of cake, Jimmy tried to hide the empty pan.

Jimmy, having eaten the last piece of cake, tried to hide the pan.

Jimmy tried to hide the pan, having just eaten the last piece of cake.


Dangling Participial Phrase

Feeling bored, schoolwork was a welcome distraction. (Neither the schoolwork, nor the distraction were bored.)

Feeling bored, Kate welcomed the distraction of schoolwork. (Kate was feeling bored.)


Her breath smelled fresh, having eaten breath mints.
(Her breath did not eat the breath mints.)

Having eaten breath mints, she had fresh-smelling breath.
(She ate the breath mints.)


Misplaces participial phrases


Misplaced Phrase:
I nearly gave the set to her bought online.
(This sounds illogical and unclear.)

I nearly gave the set bought online to her.


Climbing the wall, my friend waved to me when I turned around at the top.
(My friend was not climbing the wall; I was.)

Climbing the wall,I turned to see my friend wave to me when I reached the top.


FAQ About Participial Phrases


What is a participial phrase?

A participial phrase is a group of words that begins with an adjective and works as an adjective.


What is a participle?

A participle is a verbal, a word formed from a verb which acts as an adjective.


What is an adjective?

An adjective is a modifier. It describes any quality of a noun or pronoun.


How many kinds of participial phrases are there?

There are three kinds of participial phrases: present, past, and perfect.


What signifies each type of participial phrase?

The type of participial phrase is signified by the type of participle it begins with. Present participial phrases begin with present participles which end in “-ing”. Past participial phrases begin with past participles which usually end in “-ed” or “-en”. Perfect participial phrases begin with the word “having” + the past participle.


Will there always be commas to signify participial phrases?

No, commas are not always necessary. They are used most of the time, but when the phrase is essential, no commas are necessary.