On the Care and Feeding of Participial Phrases

In some critique circles, shooting down misplaced modifiers has become a sporting activity. It’s fun, because they’re easy to spot and can be really funny. “The robber drove the getaway car in a batman costume” should make you smile at the image of a car cosplaying as The Batman. It’s logical that a modifier works best when it’s placed as close as possible to the thing it’s describing. For example, the descriptor “in a batman costume” should be next to “robber” and not “car.”

Unfortunately, a valuable writing tool—the participial phrase—is taking collateral damage.

An image of a 19th-century postcard showing three people "flying" with stiff airplane-like wings justting from ther sides, as they shoot at ducks in the sky.
An 1899 postcard by Jean-Marc Côté
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A participial phrase is a specialized modifier that conveys movement or change, often incorporating visual imagery and other details, while performing the duties of an adjective. This tool has its own grammar and punctuation rules. Like any modifier, it can be misplaced, but the writer has flexibility in its placement, supported by the unsung hero of grammar: the comma.

To be sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with participles. A participle is what you get when you take a verb and use it as an adjective: drowned trees, running water, flying pigs, grown woman, billowing clouds. Look for the past- and present-tense endings.

A simple participle works just like an ordinary adjective and is placed exactly as you would expect. For example, “drowned trees” could be a more dramatic way to say “dead trees.” It’s not unique to English, but repurposing words is relatively common in our language. Apparently, we English-speakers are determined to keep turning one part of speech into another, as if we haven’t got enough words already. Verbing nouns is one of my pet peeves.

(Yes, I know. You saw what I did there.)

A participial phrase is both

  • a phrase with a participle in it, and
  • a phrase acting as an adjective, intended to describe the subject of a sentence.

For example, “acting as an adjective” is a participial phrase. So is, “intended to describe the subject of a sentence.”

To get a participial phrase, you build upon the participle:

Trees … drowned in the flood from the broken dam

Water … running over rocks and rills

Pigs … flying like eagles

Woman … grown wise in the ways of the world

Clouds … billowing like windblown sheets of satin (note the participle within this participial phrase)

Brilliant clouds sail high over the plains towards distant mountaints

Participles and participial phrases add flavor and texture to our sentences, and because they come from verbs, they help create a feeling of action. Questions arise when we go to put our nicely-constructed phrase into its sentence, because … where do we put the darned thing? You have three choices:

Leading: Billowing like windblown sheets of satin, the clouds sailed over the plains of Endor.

Subject-adjacent: The clouds, billowing like windblown sheets of satin, sailed over the plains of Endor.

Trailing: The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor, billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Photo Credit: Jonathan C. Wheeler, CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Note: these are my own terms. Reliable texts will say “at the beginning/in the middle/at the end.” yawn. Also, do not rail at me about the forests of Endor. This one is about the plains. Where, possibly, it rains. Like in Spain.)

Now … wait for it … here it comes:

If (and only if) you fail to properly punctuate a participial phrase, it becomes a misplaced modifier.

Technically, it’s a mispunctuated modifier, but to the reader, it’s confusing, and that’s why we care about misplaced modifiers. It occurs most often when the participial phrase is trailing. The separating comma before the phrase signals the reader that what follows describes the subject, in our example: clouds. Without the comma, you get:

The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Here, the reader is cast adrift and must grab for the nearest noun. While it may be possible that the plains of Endor billow, without other information, the reader will snicker, backtrack, guess what you mean, and move on, now somewhat annoyed by your absent comma.

Participial phrases bow to the humble comma or risk being misunderstood. For leading ones, you need a comma to close off the modifying phrase and move into the sentence proper. For subject-adjacent placement, commas—or their absence—are used intentionally to create subtle distinctions in meaning, distinguishing between essential description and nonessential elaboration.

A participial phrase placed next to the subject but without commas makes that descriptor an essential one. Consider:

The clouds billowing like windblown sheets of satin sailed over the plains of Endor.

Here the phrase is “essential” because it’s telling us that only those clouds that are billowing (yes, like satin) sail over the plains. Perhaps other clouds lie high in the stratosphere, unaffected by the winds below. If we put the commas back in, then we know the descriptor is colorful but nonessential. That is, we understand that all the clouds are sailing, though we pause in the middle of the sentence to enjoy the charming detail of their movement and sheen.

Placement at the beginning versus the end of a sentence allows us to create a sense of sequence, the order in which the storyteller wants the reader to experience each element. With the leading version of our Endorian sentence, the author wants you to take in the image of the shape and movement and texture of the clouds first, then imagine them sailing over the plains. It’s like when a child runs up to you with a remote-control toy and says “Look! Godzilla is driving this robot car! Isn’t it cool? Now watch what it can do!”

In contrast, with a trailing placement, the author nudges you to first realize that the clouds are sailing over the plains—maybe it’s important, because a party of adventurers must cross the stormy plain—and then lets you enjoy the clouds’ beauty. In our child’s-play example, first you are startled by a remote-control car zipping across the playground, and then a child is calling out “Wow! Cool! A robot car with Godzilla driving it!”

And now, don’t you want a robot car?

Me, too!

Were the plains of Endor too much? Let’s review, using a simpler situation. Imagine a romance in which a young woman has just learned her true love is about to sail away on a ship, and she’s hurried to the docks. She spots him boarding a vessel, but it’s way down on the pier. She has to run. She wants him to see her, but he’s too far away.

Here’s a mispunctuated participial phrase: Mun-Su ran down the dock waving to her departing lover.

We know the dock isn’t saying farewell to its lover, we know it’s Mun-Su, but as readers we don’t like to have to stop and think about it. Add the comma demanded by a trailing participial phrase, and all becomes clear as we yank out our hankies: Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Of course, you could stick the participial phrase at the front: Waving to her departing lover, Mun-Su ran down the dock. Grammatically, this is correct, but we’ve defined a situation in which Mun-Su needs to get a move on first; her running is the critical action, because the lover won’t see her waving until she gets closer.

Further, what if you want to make the situation more complex? This is an important beat in the story. Surely, you want to share the character’s innermost feelings, her physical sensations at that moment: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Those unaware of the functionality of the participial phrase will point and cry, “You must place the phrase next to the subject.” Oh, my, but then you get: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su, waving to her departing lover, ran down the dock.

Poor Mun-Su is awkwardly waving, in a nonessential way, as she runs down the dock. Sadly, I’m not seeing a happily-ever-after now. Pass me the tissues.

I do hope you have enjoyed this little missive from the Grammar Police. We protect and serve … the text.

Further reading:

Clean examples and a bonus round on dangling modifiers from Grammar Monster: https://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/participle_phrases.htm

Purdue University’s online writing lab explicating plenty of complexities in participles and their phrases: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/mechanics/gerunds_participles_and_infinitives/participles.html

Don’t worry, Ha Mun-Su does get her happy ending eventually, and Won Jin-Ah won an award for her portrayal, too! https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7521898/

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