Participles & Participial Phrases

In order to be more descriptive, many writers use participles and participial phrases to add style to their writing. Participles are tricky to construct and punctuate properly, but hopefully with a proper study of them, students can feel confident in applying them to their writing. Also, for College Reading and English Essentials, students need to be able to punctuate these phrases properly.

A participle is just an adjective in the form of a verbal. Adjectives, as we well know, describe nouns or pronouns. So, participles are just description words in the form of an –ing verb (present participle) or –ed verb (past participle).

Let’s look at some examples:

Yelling drivers are distracting on the road.
The sound of rustling leaves makes me feel nostalgic.
The defeated team felt depressed.
A high-pitched engine whine can be the sign of a broken transmission.

Just like adjectives, participles many times come before the noun or pronoun they describe. Just as we can describe a team as ‘sad,’ we can also describe them as ‘defeated’ or ‘smiling.’ Commas are not needed with participles but are needed with participial phrases.

Participial phrases are just that: a group of related words (phrase) with beginning with a participle. They can be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of a main clause.


Arriving late to the game, the team was unable to warm up.
They, being philosophy students, understood what the lecturer meant by the word epistemology.
The crowd left quietly, depressed from the film.
Broken and beaten, I lay down to rest.

As a general rule, we need commas with participial phrases because they are almost always nonessential (see the last post). If we begin with a participial phrase, we need a comma before the main clause starts. If a participial phrase interrupts the main clause, we need commas surrounding it. Lastly, if a participial phrase comes at the end of a sentence, we need a comma before the phrase begins.

Knowing where to place participial phrases can be tricky because if we place them in the wrong place, a reader may be confused as to which noun or pronoun we are describing. This error is called a misplaced modifier. To avoid this in our writing, we must place the participial phrase as close as we can to the noun or pronoun it describes.


CorrectWalking to the store, I spotted my favorite car. (The phrase ‘walking to the store’ is describing me; therefore, I placed it as close to the pronoun ‘I’ as I could.)
Incorrect – I spotted my favorite car, walking to the store. (Is the car ‘walking to the store’? Of course not, but a reader may be confused if we do not make it clear what noun or pronoun is being modified by the participial phrase.)

Works Cited

Reid, Stephen. “Phrases and Clauses.” The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. 2008. Print.

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