|
|
Participial Phrase

That lady was staring at me. I didn't like her staring, so I sat across from her, staring straight back.

Mockup Schule

Explore our app and discover over 50 million learning materials for free.

Participial Phrase

Illustration

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden
Illustration

That lady was staring at me. I didn't like her staring, so I sat across from her, staring straight back.

Believe it or not, in this example, each instance of the word staring is a different part of speech. The first instance is used as a verb, the second is used as a noun, and the third is used as an adjective. The last phrase, staring straight back, is a special construction called a participial phrase. Interesting verb-adjective combos, participial phrases are powerful descriptive tools.

Definition of a Participial Phrase

To understand participial phrases, you need to first understand the definition of phrases.

A phrase is a unit of one or more words that adds meaning to a clause or sentence.

That's simple enough. Two other important terms to understand are the verb phrase and the adjective phrase. A participle phrase is similar to both. Here's a quick refresher:

  • A verb is a word that describes an action or a state of being.
  • A verb phrase is a phrase made up of modifiers and a verb.
  • An adjective is a word that adds information to a noun phrase, answering questions of which one, what kind, and how many.
  • An adjective phrase is a phrase made up of an adjective and optional modifiers.
  • A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that provides extra information about a particular word.

Now you're ready to define a participial phrase.

A participial (or participle) phrase is a phrase made up of a participle and optional modifiers. A participial phrase modifies a noun phrase.

Because a participial phrase modifies a noun phrase, it is always an adjectival phrase, not an adverbial phrase.

You may have noticed in this definition that a participial phrase is also called a participle phrase. The two terms have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably. You'll see both terms in this explanation.

What is a Participle?

The definition of a participial phrase doesn't make much sense if you don't know what a participle is! Here is the definition:

A participle is a word that has features of both a verb and an adjective. It is used as an adjective to modify a noun phrase.

Basically, a participle is a verb-turned-adjective. That means that a participle can be difficult to distinguish from a normal verb.

Participial Phrase, Cartoon Sandwich, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A rejected sandwich.

Verb: The sandwich was rejected.

Participle: The rejected sandwich sat on the counter.

Both sentences include the word rejected.

In the first example, rejected is preceded by a helping verb (was) and explains what the sentence says about the sandwich. These are classic traits of a verb.

In the second example, rejected describes the noun sandwich, answering the question of what kind of sandwich? These are telltale traits of an adjective.

Included in the use of participles is a common sentence-structure mistake: the dangling participle. A dangling participle is a participle that modifies the wrong noun phrase in a sentence.

Example: Shivering from the cold, the fire was a relieving sight.

The participle phrase shivering from the cold modifies the noun phrase the fire, implying that the fire is shivering from the cold. You could fix this dangling participle by changing the noun phrase it modifies.

Example: Shivering from the cold, we were relieved to see the fire.

Now the participle phrase modifies the pronoun we. It's clear that we are shivering from the cold rather than the fire.

Dangling participles are an easy mistake to make. Keep an eye out for dangling participles in your writing! You can avoid them by making sure the participle accurately describes the nearby noun phrase.

Examples of Participial Phrases

There are two main types of participial phrases: present participial phrases and past participial phrases. Here are some examples of both types.

Present Participial Phrase

In English, present participles take the form of verbs ending in -ing. This is the same form that verbs take in the present progressive tense.

Present progressive verb phrase: The baby is smiling.

Present participial phrase: The smiling baby

The present progressive verb and the present participle take the same form: smiling. In the first example, smiling answers the question of what was the baby doing? This signals a verb. In the second, smiling answers the question of which baby? This signals an adjective.

Another grammar concept similar to the present participle is the gerund. While a present participle is a present progressive verb used as an adjective, a gerund is a present progressive verb used as a noun.

Present progressive verb: You're ignoring the conversation, and I don't like it.

Present participle: You're just sitting there ignoring the conversation.

Gerund: Your ignoring of the conversation is frustrating.

Because they take the same forms, these parts of speech are sometimes difficult to tell apart. To tell whether a word is a present progressive verb, present participle, or gerund, ask yourself, "does this word behave like a verb, an adjective, or a noun?"

Participial Phrase, Smiling Baby, StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - The smiling baby is a present participial phrase.

Past Participial Phrase

Past participles in English take the same form as a verb in the simple past tense. These are typically verbs that end in -t, -ed, or -d.

Past verb phrase: The play was written well.

Past participle phrase: The well-written play

In the first example, written well follows a helping verb and explains what the sentence says about the play, signaling a verb phrase. In the second, well-written precedes play and answers the question, what kind of play? This signals an adjective.

How Do You Identify Participial Phrases in a Sentence?

The previous examples have involved isolated participial phrases. But how would you recognize a participial phrase within a complete sentence?

There are a few hints that can help you to identify a participial phrase in contrast to a verb phrase.

  • A helping verb (like am, is, was, are, were, etc.) can precede a verb, but not a participle. If the phrase connects to a helping verb, it's not a participial phrase.

  • A verb phrase explains what the subject does or is. A participle phrase describes the subject.

  • A sentence can consist of just a subject and a verb phrase, but it cannot consist of just a subject and a participle phrase.

Try following these hints with this example.

1. They were troubled by the disturbing news.

2. They sat, troubled by the disturbing news, in complete silence.

In one of these sentences, the phrase troubled by the disturbing news is a participial phrase. In the other, it is part of a verb phrase. Use the three hints to find out which is which.

  • Does the phrase follow a helping verb?In sentence 1, troubled by the disturbing news follows the helping verb were. This hints at a verb phrase.In sentence 2, troubled by the disturbing news does not follow a helping verb. This hints that this is not a verb phrase.
  • Does it explain what the subject does or is? Does it describe the subject?In sentence 1, troubled by the disturbing news explains what the subject is. In other words, troubled by the disturbing news is what they are.In sentence 2, the phrase doesn't explain what they do or what they are. Instead, it provides an additional description of the subject they.
  • Does the phrase form a full sentence when paired with the subject, or does it require another phrase?The two main elements of sentence 1 are they and were troubled by the disturbing news. Sentence 2 also contains those two elements, but includes another: sat in complete silence. If you dropped this phrase, sentence 2 would read, they, troubled by the disturbing news. Sentence 2 needs the additional verb phrase, sat in complete silence.

The three hints suggest that the phrase troubled by the disturbing news is a verb phrase in sentence 1 and a participial phrase in sentence 2. If you're ever unsure whether a phrase is a participial phrase or a verb phrase, work through these questions to come to a conclusion.

Introductory Participial Phrases

You've seen some examples of participle phrases in the middle of a sentence and at the end of a sentence. Now for a new category: introductory participial phrases.

An introductory participial phrase is a participial phrase that appears at the beginning of a sentence.

Here are some examples of sentences with introductory participial phrases.

Squinting into the sunlight, Nora emerged from the vault.

The first phrase in this sentence, squinting into the sunlight, is a present participial phrase. The primary action in this sentence is emerged from the vault. The participial phrase describes the subject, Nora.

Having already finished her tasks, Luisa was able to go home early.

This is another example of an introductory participial phrase. The main message of the sentence is that Luisa was able to go home early. The introductory participial phrase, having already finished her tasks, adds an extra description to the proper noun, Luisa.

You might notice from these examples that an introductory participial phrase has to be followed by a comma. While a comma is often optional with other participial phrases, it is necessary in an introductory participial phrase. The comma separates the introductory participle phrase from the rest of the sentence.

Uses of a Participial Phrase

Participial phrases function as adjectives. Just like simple adjectives, they add valuable information to noun phrases.

A participle phrase can sometimes allow for a more interesting, informative, and rich description than an adjective can provide. Take a look at this example:

Adjective: He looked sadly out the window.

Participle: He looked out the window, fighting back tears.

The participle phrase fighting back tears communicates more emotion than the adjective sadly.

Participial Phrase, The Raven Edgar Allen Poe, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Poe uses particle phrases in "The Raven."

Speaking of communicating emotion, participial phrases can also play a powerful role in poetry. This excerpt from "The Raven" (1845) by Edgar Allen Poe contains a very long participial phrase:

Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before." (Lines 25-26)

The main substance of this sentence is long I stood there. Everything else is part of a participle phrase!

One purpose of these long participial phrases is to maintain the rhyme. The participles peering, fearing, and dreaming extend a constant rhyme, helping the lines to flow in a natural and interesting pattern.

Another purpose of the participial phrases is to create sustained tension. They keep the narration continuous and incessant. The reader is constantly stuck in the moment of the narrator's fear. These repetitive participles appear throughout the entire poem, maintaining the tension until the final lines.

Participial Phrase - Key Takeaways

  • A participial (or participle) phrase is a phrase made up of modifiers and a participle. A participial phrase modifies a noun phrase.
  • There are two main types of participial phrases: present participial phrases and past participial phrases.
  • Present participles take the same form as present progressive verbs. Past participles take the same form as simple past verbs.
  • An introductory participial phrase is a participial phrase that appears at the beginning of a sentence.
  • A participle phrase can sometimes allow for a more interesting, informative, and rich description than an adjective on its own can provide.

Frequently Asked Questions about Participial Phrase

A participial (or participle) phrase is a phrase made up of modifiers and a participle. A participial phrase modifies a noun phrase.

There are two main types of participial phrases: present participial phrases and past participial phrases. Present participles take the same form as present progressive verbs. Past participles take the same form as simple past verbs.

Squinting into the sunlight, Nora emerged from the vault.


The first phrase in this sentence, squinting into the sunlight, is a present participial phrase. The primary action in this sentence is emerged from the vault. The participial phrase describes the subject, Nora.

There are a few hints that can help you to identify a participial phrase in contrast to a verb phrase.


  • A helping verb (like am, is, was, are, were, etc.) can precede a verb, but not a participle. If the phrase connects to a helping verb, it's not a participial phrase.

  • A verb phrase explains what the subject does or isA participle phrase describes the subject.

  • A sentence can consist of just a subject and a verb phrase, but it cannot consist of just a subject and a participle phrase. 

1. They were troubled by the disturbing news.

2. They sat, troubled by the disturbing news, in complete silence.


In sentence 1, troubled by the disturbing news is a verb phrase: it follows a helping verb, explains what the subject is, and does not require an additional verb to complete the sentence. In sentence 2, troubled by the disturbing news is a participial phrase: it does not follow a helping verb, acts as an adjective by describing the subject, and requires the additional verb sat to complete the sentence.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Select the sentence with a participial phrase.

Select the sentence with a participial phrase.

Identify the sentence with a participial phrase.

Next
More about Participial Phrase

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

  • Flashcards & Quizzes
  • AI Study Assistant
  • Study Planner
  • Mock-Exams
  • Smart Note-Taking
Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Entdecke Lernmaterial in der StudySmarter-App

Google Popup

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

  • Flashcards & Quizzes
  • AI Study Assistant
  • Study Planner
  • Mock-Exams
  • Smart Note-Taking
Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App