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.

What is a participial phrase?

A participial phrase is a phrase containing a past or a present participle.

Examples:

Exhausted after twenty hours of work, he collapsed as soon as he got home.

Floating in the pool, she looked up at the blue sky.

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.

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.

Example:

Unlocking the door, she went straight to bed.

She unlocks the door first and then goes to bed, so we can’t use a participle construction in this sentence.

Possible rewrites:

She unlocked the door and went straight to bed.

After she had unlocked the door, she went straight to bed.

Incorrectly used participles are common with dialogue tags.

Example:

“Don’t tempt me,” she said, laughing.

Since she can’t talk and laugh at the same time, you should rewrite the sentence.

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.

Example:

The dog fetching the ball was mine.

Summary

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.

4 thoughts on “How to use participial phrases in your writing

  1. Thanks! These are good reminders.about the unintended consequences of participial phrases. They can be so tempting to fall back on, especially when one wants to quickly change up the structure of a sentence and it’s an easy solution. And they do jump out at you like crazy when an author is using them a lot.

    Honestly, though, only one participial phrase for every five to ten pages, when you consider how many places they can exist in a sentence, does seem kind of extreme, to me.

    1. I agree. One participial phrase every 5-10 pages seems extreme, but it shouldn’t be one in every paragraph either. Achieving a good balance is the key.

  2. Thank you for these valuable remarks, but I’m kind of still a bit confused about this sentence: He sat facing the wall. Is “facing the wall” a participial phrase that functions as an adjective? Here it is put at the end but not seperated with a comma and at the same time it follows directly the verb. I’ll be grateful if you would explain that to me. Thank you again.

    1. Yes, it is a participle, but in this case, I wouldn’t separate it from the verb with a comma because it describes how/where he is sitting instead of describing an action that takes place at the same time as the sentence’s main action.

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