Like adjectives, participles have the ability to modify constituents; however, they don’t always enjoy the same freedoms as these modifiers. For example, participles sound awkward, indeed, ungrammatical, when modified by a degree adverb. Brinton notes that one can say “a sweetly smiling girl,” but “a very sweetly smiling girl” is hyperbolically beyond the bounds of grammaticality (174). Nonetheless, the present participle adjective is often a descriptor of an action or situation that is in progress, which enables it to highlight the concurrency of that action with its modifier, bringing them into focus in real time. Compare the following sentences:
As Shane followed me down the street, he pleaded his case with feigned desperation.
Shane followed me down the street, pleading his case with feigned desperation.
Pleading his case with feigned desperation, Shane followed me down the street.
While the three sentences are semantically alike, the second two convey a sense of immediacy, which also emphasizes the close relationship between the adjacent clauses. In addition, the participial modifier underscores the simultaneousness of the occurrences by giving them equal treatment, thereby rendering them both immediate and actual.
Like verbs, participles have tense and they work with modals; but, unlike verbs, they never rule within the hierarchical environment of the sentence. On the other hand, in some respects — certainly poetically — the participle has greater clout than a copular or stative verb; and in some ways, it’s the only element that gives credibility to a main verb. I might tell you, for example, that a 100-year-old woman ran up 100 flights of stairs. But, I give you a real and more believable picture of that event if I say, A one-hundred-year-old woman ran up one hundred flights of stairs, trembling, cursing, and praying for death.
What Participles Look Like
In English, the participle appears in two forms — present tense and past tense. In the present tense, an -ing ending is attached to any bare verb form (write – writing, run – running, sing – singing, dance – dancing). Participles in the past tense are more complicated. They attach an -ed ending to the bare form of regular, or weak, verbs (danced, climbed, added); –en, -n, and –t endings to strong, or irregular, verbs (forgotten, torn, lost); and they demand stem changes as well as irregular endings to uniquely irregular verbs (run, drunk, lain). The past participle is the same verb form English-language speakers use with have or had to create the present perfect and past perfect forms (has run, have sung, had gone). These are present- and past-perfect verbs, which, when stripped of their auxiliaries, no longer function as verbs. In the following example, the main clause in sentence (a) comprises two lexical verbs, feel and write. By omitting the auxiliaries in sentence (b), the lexical verbs become participial modifiers, describing the subject.
(a) Dante had felt energized and he had written feverishly, so he finished La vita nuova in a fortnight.
(b) Energized and writing feverishly, Dante finished La vita nuova in a fortnight.
Where Participles Occur
Participles occur in all the tenses, with the exception of the progressive active, and the perfect progressive passive. Brinton (240) lists the following verb forms in which the present participle can and cannot occur:
Simple active: She’s always singing that song.
Perfect active: Having sung her last song, she bowed and left the room.
Progressive active: *having singing
Perfect progressive active: Having been singing all her life, she knew many songs by heart.
Perfect passive: Having been determined from the beginning, she released her first CD against great odds.
Progressive passive: Being called a songwriter makes it all worthwhile.
Perfect progressive passive: *Having been being determined…. (Although some consider this grammatical, I find it awkward at best; the perfect active or the progressive active are less unwieldy.)
The verb forms, at least those that are grammatical, can usually be changed into pure participles:
Singing that song makes her happy.
Her last song sung, she bowed and left the room.
Determined from the beginning, she released her first CD against great odds.
Participial phrases comprise a participle accompanied by other lexical units that provide added information; for example, badly written prose, greatly inspired lecture, searching desperately for the homework assignment. According to Jacobs, linguists once thought participials were nothing more than reduced forms of the relative clause; that is, a relative clause containing a past participle shorn of its auxiliary and complementizer (313). For example, a sentence such as, "Barking loudly, Juno ran to the door" was simply a reduction of, "Juno, who was barking loudly, ran to the door." Yet, as logical as this may have seemed, it failed to rise to the occasion for all English-language verbs. Among the culprits, Jacobs notes the verb “contain”: “A bottle containing acid had a green color” cannot be forced into a relative clause with a present participle form; for example, * “A bottle that was containing acid had a green color” (313). However, the jury is still out, and some linguists still refer to participials as reduced relative clauses.
Uses of Participials
Participials have all sorts of uses for writers. In general, they give writers enormous flexibility and freedom. In particular, they allow them to fine-tune descriptive passages, bringing them to life in readers’ imaginations. Participials also give readers additional information that answers questions as to why or how an action took place. Compare the following sentences:
Dante, spurned and condemned, left Florence forever.
Dante, spurned by his former friends and condemned to death by the city council, left Florence forever.
While the first sentence is perfectly acceptable with its single participles, the second sentence not only modifies condemned, it tells the reader who spurned and condemned Dante. Participial phrases give writing vitality, which allows it to flow in rhythmically satisfying, yet unpredictable and surprising ways. Compare these sentences.
The principal yells and screams at the students on a daily basis.
The principal yells and screams at the students on a daily basis, her high-pitched voice screeching, her big yellow teeth gnashing, her arms flapping against her thick saddlebag thighs.
Participials add texture and movement to prose, bestowing it with a certain musicality. They also create an undercurrent of mystery by gracefully “suggesting relationships.” In this sense, they can take the place of subordinating clauses. Morenberg and Sommers offer an example of this technique in the following two sentences (49):
Because actor Anthony Hopkins glared directly at the camera and did not blink for long periods of time, he made the cannibalistic murderer of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, a frightening presence on the screen.
Glaring directly at the camera and not blinking for long periods of time, actor Anthony Hopkins made the cannibalistic murderer of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, a frightening presence on the screen.
Again, while the first example is grammatically acceptable, it’s rather flat, and it fails to underscore the essential connection between Hopkins’ glare and his frightening presence on the screen. However, a phrase such as glaring directly at the camera carries the reader into the theater. By fusing the participial phrase with the main clause, the writer has managed to underscore the causal relationship between the participial complementizer and the “frightening presence on the screen.”
Participial phrases are also creative alternatives to conjunctive adverbs such as thus, therefore, hence, for this reason. In the following examples, the participial phrase avoids the staccato effect of short sentences or clauses joined by conjunctive adverbs. Consider the difference between the following constructions:
The dogs were frightened by a noise outside the door. For this reason, they barked incessantly until I reassured them no one was there.
Frightened by a noise outside the door, the dogs barked incessantly until I reassured them no one was there.
Participials work well in absolute constructions — constructions that often use the participle form and highlight the essential connection between entities. Compare the following sentences:
Shana came in from sleigh riding. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were shining.
Shana, her cheeks flushed and her eyes shining, came in from sleigh riding.
In the first sentence, Shana’s cheeks and eyes are an afterthought, not necessarily connected to her sleigh-riding. In the second sentence, it’s clear that her flushed cheeks and shining eyes were caused by her exercise in the snow.
Placement of Participials
Participials are free spirits; they are not locked into entirely predictable slots in every sentence. Nonetheless, writers who insert them randomly run the risk of misplacing them, which disturbs the text. The positioning of participials affects the cadence and, often, the intonation of the sentence; and most important, it modifies and determines meaning. Consider the following sentences:
Looking guilty as she trotted up the driveway, Ziggy glared at Zion as if to warn her to keep her mouth shut about her adventure.
Ziggy, looking guilty as she trotted up the driveway, glared at Zion as if to warn her to keep her mouth shut about her adventure.
Ziggy glared at Zion as if to warn her to keep her mouth shut about her adventure, looking guilty as she trotted up the driveway.
In the first sentence, the phrase immediately captures the action and thrusts Ziggy directly into the reader’s imagination. The second sentence delays, or interrupts, the action of the text; this momentary lapse prevents the reader from being drawn too rapidly into the text — an effect the writer may or may not want. The third sentence barely escapes classification as a dangling modifier; its insertion after the main clause gives it more of a commentary role, which forces the reader to step back from the action.
Writers, then, try to control these free-spirited agents by first determining their relationships with the main clause. In general, if the participial describes something that occurred before the action of the main clause, it appears before that clause; likewise, if it paints a picture of something that happened after the action of the main clause, it should be positioned appropriately.
Misplaced participles are participles whose referents are ambiguous; that is, while they modify a distant constituent, they are infelicitously juxtaposed with another constituent. The most common sinner is the dangling participle, which appears, or dangles, inappropriately at the end of a sentence. The following sentences should dismay and/or amuse the attentive reader:
Skipping down the hallway and giggling inappropriately on a daily basis, the students were stunned when Mr. Scott was fired.
Having once been a registered Communist, Senator Joseph McCarthy ruined Mr. Scott’s career.
In the first sentence, we are sure the students were skipping and giggling; that is, until we realize it was Mr. Scott. Thus, we’re forced to re-read the sentence to make sense of it. In the second sentence, we’re thrown off track because common knowledge immediately warns us of the writer’s error. Worse, if the knowledge isn’t common to the reader, it can lead to gross misunderstanding of the text.
Miscue participles are misplaced adjectival or adverbial modifiers; for example, this one from Groucho Marx: “Running down the street, I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” Miscue participles are different from misplaced participles in that their transference to another part of the sentence doesn’t disambiguate it. Miscue participles frequently appear in newspaper headlines, and are the source of great fun, except perhaps for the copywriters, who weren’t looking for a laugh.
IRAQI HEAD SEEKING ARMS
PROSTITUTES APPEALING TO POPE
TEACHERS STRIKING IDLE KIDS
ENRAGED COW INJURES FARMER WITH AX
MINERS REFUSING TO WORK AFTER DEATH
JUVENILE COURT TO TRY SHOOTING DEFENDANT
DRUNKEN DRIVER PAID $1000
COLD WAVE LINKED TO TEMPERATURES
POLICE BEGIN CAMPAIGN RUNNING DOWN JAY-WALKERS
LOCAL HIGHSCHOOL DROPOUTS CUT IN HALF
Types of Participials
Like all living creatures of the earth, participles play different roles depending on their immediate environment. If we want to determine the role of the participle, we must examine its linguistic environment.
Adverbial participles, as the name implies, modify verbs or adjectives. We can see in the following examples why they might be considered reductions. Starting with a subordinate clause: Until I perused Jacobs’ book, I had never experienced the joys of syntax, we can give perused a more immediate air by replacing the simple past with a present participle: Until perusing Jacobs’ book, I had never experienced the joys of syntax. We can then eliminate the complementizer, reducing it even further; however, in order to retain the original meaning, we're forced to eliminate the negation in the main clause: Perusing Jacobs’ book, I experienced the joys of syntax for the first time.
The forms in which the adverbial participle appears are distinct and not interchangeable. The authors of The Grammar Book discuss six forms of the adverbial participle — the first three forms are present participle forms; the second three are past participle forms (501):
- To modify an action that is taking place at the same time or in overlapping time: Running every day for a year, Ari started feeling stronger and healthier.
- To refer to a past activity with a specific time reference, which is interrupted by a specific time reference in the main clause: Having run since 5 AM, Ari returned to her apartment at 6 PM.
- To refer to an ongoing past activity that took place before the activity in the main clause: Having been running every day for a year, Ari decided to enter the New York City marathon.
- To express causal relationship: Toned and strengthened, Ari paid the 25-dollar entry fee.
To express a more immediate causal relationship: Being toned and strengthened, Ari felt sure the marathon was going to change her life for the better.
- To refer to an action that was completed before the action of the main clause and to underscore the causal relationship: Having once been toned and strengthened, Ari looked back on her workout days with nostalgia.
Adjectival participles can appear in pre-nominal or post-nominal slots. As attributes of the noun, they generally appear before the NP: Shana’s overstuffed closet is a mess. When adjectival participles are predicative, they can be placed before or after the NP: Kyla’s closet is stuffed with expensive clothing. Filled to the brim, Jaaron’s closet is inaccessible.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell whether an adjectival participle is really a verbal in disguise. For example:
Beatrice is striking.
Beatrice is striking Dante.
If there is any uncertainty, an intensifier test might distinguish the participial roles, especially the present participle form. If the sentence is grammatical, the participle is nominative: Beatrice is VERY striking. If the sentence is ungrammatical, the participle is predicative:*Beatrice is very striking Dante.
Passive Verbs vs. Adjectival Participles
Past participles are an integral part of the structure of passive verbs; but as such their roles are not always easily determined. In general, the past participle is adjectival when it describes a noun phrase; it’s passive when it describes how or by what agent or instrument an action occurs. However, when there is no post-nominal prepositional phrase, the distinction becomes clouded. For example, in a sentence such as The milk was spilled, the past participle spilled could be regarded as passive, but it could also be called adjectival. Once the by-phrase is added, its function becomes clear: The milk was spilled by Kyla — the participle is functioning verbally. The milk was spilled, and there was no sense crying over it — the past participle is adjectival.
Faux Past Participles
Sometimes adjectives have all the appearance of past participles, but they are really just ordinary adjectives donning the garb of participles. Some of these tricky adjectives are listed in The Grammar Book (586): one-legged man, naked truth, green-eyed monster. These can be tested by using the intensifier test. *the very one-legged man. The other two examples might pass the intensifier test, but only as emphatics or tongue-in-cheek referents: The very naked truth. The very green-eyed monster.
Linguistics is not an exact science. As in all fields of research there is disagreement among researchers, and their lofty disputes even involve labels for various parts of speech.
Most linguists regard the gerund as a substantive participle, which is often used interchangeably with the infinitive, another non-finite form of the verb. The following two sentences are transposable.
Winning is the object of the game.
The object of the game is to win.
In fact, a gerund is usually regarded as a noun, although some linguists prefer to classify it as a present participle. Indeed, it shares the same ending with the present participle, but it does not represent the doing of the action, rather, the naming of the action. In this way, it can function grammatically as a subject or a complement of the verb, but, it does not have verbal qualities. Since a sentence in English must contain a noun phrase and a verb phrase, the sentence is rendered ungrammatical if a gerund tries to stand in for a verb phrase: *The telephone ringing. *The telling of Chaucer’s tale. Warriner defines a gerund as a verbal noun, because it is derived from a verb and it functions as a noun (454). By extension, a gerund phrase is a phrase containing a gerund and its complements. The following sentence contains a gerund phrase as subject:
Entering the grand salon of the rich and famous was the greatest experience of Booth’s life.
Compare this with the following sentence:
Entering the grand salon of the rich and famous, Booth felt queasy and out of place.
Here, the participial is identical to that of the previous sentence, but it is not a gerund; it is a present participle phrase. One way to test whether an –ing word is a gerund or a present participle is to determine its function in a sentence. If it functions as a noun, it’s a gerund. Furthermore, if the sentence loses meaning when the past participle is substituted for the present participle, it’s a gerund. We can see this in the following sentence.
*Entered the grand salon of the rich and famous was the greatest experience of Booth’s life.
Gerunds and Verbs that Can’t Live Without Them
Some verbs need gerunds to clarify their meaning. For instance, a verb such as try can be followed by a gerund or an infinitive, each of which conveys a different meaning: Jaaron tried to work in an office suggests that Jaaron looked for work in a traditional office, but couldn’t find such a job. On the other hand, Jaaron tried working in an office communicates the idea that she worked in an office for a short period, but then realized it wasn’t for her. Further, words such as enjoy, deny, quit, and many others must be followed by a gerund: Jaaron enjoyed working in an office. *Jaaron enjoyed to work in an office. It’s not uncommon to hear this error in non-native speakers of English, whose native languages stipulate that when one verb follows another, the second verb must be in the infinitive. Consider the following examples from Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese: A Jaaron piaceva lavorare in un officio. A Jaaron le gustaba trabajar in una oficina. Jaaron amait travailler dans un bureau. Jaaron mochte in einem Büro arbeiten. O Jaaron amou trabalhar num escritório.
Gerunds, then, may or may not belong in a discussion of the participle. But there is no doubt as to its semantic importance. For example, I forgot to bring my homework today has a very different meaning from I forgot bringing my homework today (cf. the excellent discussion of the gerund in The Grammar Book 648-9).
Participles as Imperatives
Brown argues that present participles might function as imperatives as well as nouns and adjectives. He is referring to cases in which the participle is an essential part of the command; and he cites examples from English-language translations of the Bible, such as the following:
Jesus said [to his disciples], “And as ye go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.”
If, says Brown, Jesus’ disciples went off to preach and preached something other than “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” they would not have obeyed his command. In another example, he cites the command “keep on moving: If the commandee wishes to obey, his/her movement must be either continuous or continual; if it’s neither, s/he has not obeyed the command. If we accept Brown’s claim that the participle’s power to “define, or limit, the imperative” (8) makes it inseparable from the command, then it’s an imperative. However, grammarians are yet to yield to his argument; they continue in their insistence that participles function only in the indicative present and past, never in the imperative.
There is no dearth of controversy surrounding the teaching of grammatical structures as a vehicle for improving students’ writing and speaking abilities in a first or second language. Some claim to have proven the uselessness of formal grammar instruction; others hail it as a cure-all for sloppy thinking and feeble communicative skills. More pragmatic educators, who view messages from diehard theoreticians with a critical eye, know that communicative skills can be taught; but there is no single path to that end. Practical educators are eclectic in their choices of teaching methodologies; and they become adept at hacking through paths overgrown with theories, extracting just what they need. Communicative skills can be taught, but instructors must give students opportunities to experiment, discuss, and analyze with as much objectivity as possible.
Reasons for Teaching Participial Use
More than any other grammatical form, participles allow writers great flexibility. As we have seen, participials can be transported in and around a sentence or main clause to produce different effects. When students understand these effects and begin to play with their possibilities without worrying about being wrong or right or pleasing their teacher, their writing improves. Furthermore, in the ESL classroom, teaching about participles can help students avoid some of the present-tense errors prevalent in non-native speakers whose native languages don’t recognized the difference between present-tense constructions such as I am going and I go, or I like and I do like.
Applications in Writing Instruction
While it’s far from certain that students become better writers as a result of formal grammar instruction, teachers can create practical writing lessons around the use of the participle. To stimulate background knowledge and set the stage for a formal lesson, write some humorous miscues on the board, especially from headlines written by professional copywriters. Besides those already mentioned in this paper, try:
POLICE HELP DOG BITTING VICTIM
STOLEN PAINTING FOUND BY TREE
SISTERS REUNITED AFTER 18 YEARS ON CHECKOUT LINE
MILK DRINKERS TURNING TO POWDER
PANDA MATING FAILS. VETERINARIAN TAKING OVER.
DEAF MUTE GETS NEW HEARING IN KILLING
Give students time to come up with blundering headlines of their own creation; or, if you have Internet access in your classroom, let them do a search for additional misplaced participials (there are plenty to be had). Working your way backwards into the lesson by sharing humorous miscues helps students understand both the subtle and not-so-subtle powers of language. The next step is to share some misplaced modifiers and ask students how the sentences might be rescued. The following sentences can serve as models:
Driving through Washington, Mt St. Helens dominated the landscape.
Crossing the room, her foot bled all over the carpet.
Driving home in yesterday’s storm, a tree fell on the back of my car.
In evening clothes and with her hair specially styled, Mark thought his mother as glamorous as a film star. (“Dangling, Hanging, or Unattached Participles.”)
As students analyze and repair these ill-written sentences, they learn some fundamentals about the plasticity of language as it occurs within syntactical and semantic boundaries. In addition, they learn that language can be manipulated, and, most important of all, they have the power to manipulate it.
To give students an opportunity to practice with participles, give them sentence-combining exercises as a whole-class, group, or individual activity. Morenberg and Sommers include first-rate sentence-combining exercises in The Writer’s Options. Students are asked to combine sets of sentences into a single sentence with the help of participial phrases. Here is one example, which they model (54):
He was slowed by Parkinson’s disease.
Muhammad Ali moved deliberately among the adoring children in the mall.
He signed autographs.
He shook hands.
And he spoke in a soft voice.
Slowed by Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali moved deliberately among the adoring children at the mall, signing autographs, shaking hands, and speaking in a soft voice (54).
Besides sentence combining, students are also given prompts and asked to enrich them by creating their own participial phrases. For example, “Mom stared at me for a minute.” After modeling a response, let students write their own elaboration.
Horrified at my latest fashion statement, Mom stared at me for a minute, examining the small gold stud in my tongue (58).
Applications in Poetry
I have yet to find a student, no matter what age, who doesn’t enjoy writing autobiographical poems, or bio poems. An excellent way to teach participial usage without presenting a formal grammar lesson is to model a bio poem and then ask students to do a similar poem about themselves, a friend, relative, or story character. You can model a poem emphasizing any grammatical construction, and vary the requirements depending on students’ ages and abilities. For elementary-school students and older English-language students, it’s essential that you brainstorm with the class to create lists of words from which they can choose. In this way, they can enjoy the creativity and excitement of language without flailing under its lexicon. Here is an example of one model:
Three –ing words describing things you do every day
Who is hoping ……………………………………..
Who is looking forward to……………………………….
Three words to describe how you feel at the end of a day
Three words to describe how you feel in the morning
A statement about something you love
And here is a poem by a third-grade immigrant from Poland has been in the United States for two years:
Playing with her friends, talking on the phone, eating chocolate
Who is hoping that her father comes very soon
Who is looking forward to visiting Poland in the summer
Tired, Brain-Fried, Exhausted
In the morning:
Energized, convinced I should study, looking for breakfast.
Dominika loves living.
The object of this activity is to convince students they have the power to maneuver language within a tight framework. And, at the same time, you can guide them to the discovery of some specific and important aspects of prescriptive grammar.
The participle, of course, is only a small part of a huge, complex system of language. Obviously, it cannot, or should not, be taught in isolation; but it can be highlighted as one of the most versatile and playful constructions of the English language. In addition, the participle lends itself to experimentation, so student writers can try out different participial phrases or create new ones with different sentence combinations in re-writes of their own papers. Offering students tools that will enable them to work freely and creatively within carefully explicated parameters will help them in all aspects of their academic, professional, and personal lives. These are the most profound and useful gifts a teacher can offer.
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Brown. T. Pierce. “Participles.” Internet article:
Celce-Murcia, Marianne and Diane Larsen-Freeman. The Grammar Book. Boston:
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“Dangling, Hanging, or Unattached Participles.” Internet source:
Garner, Bryan A. A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford Univer
sity Press 1998.
Jacobs, Roderick A. English Syntax. New York: Oxford University Press 1995.
Morenberg, Max and Jeff Sommers. The Writer’s Options: Lessons in Style and Ar
rangement 6th Edition. New York: Longman, 1999.
“Silly Headlines.” Internet source: http://www.sandpoint.com/off_the_cuff/headline.htm
Warriner, John. English Composition and Grammar. New York: Harcourt Brace Jano