Participial Phrases

Introduction to Participial Phrases

A participial phrase is a group of words that starts with a participle and modifies a noun or pronoun in a sentence. Participial phrases function as adjectives, adding detail or description to the sentence. They consist of a present participle (verbs ending in -ing), a past participle (verb form ending in -ed, -d, -n, -t or -en), or a perfect participle (having + past participle) and any objects or modifiers.

Types of Participles

Present Participle

The present participle is formed by adding -ing to the base form of a verb. It expresses ongoing action or state of being and can be used as an adjective.

Example: Watching the sunset, she felt at peace. (The present participle watching begins the participial phrase which describes the subject “she”.)

Past Participle

The past participle is formed typically by adding -ed, -d, -t, -en, or -n to the base form of a verb. It indicates completed or past action and can be used as an adjective.

Example: Exhausted from the day’s activities, John fell asleep on the sofa. (The past participle exhausted begins the participial phrase, describing John.)

Perfect Participle

The perfect participle combines ‘having’ + ‘past participle’. It suggests completion of an action or state of being before something else happened.

Example: Having finished dinner, she washed up and began to study. (The perfect participle phrase having finished implies that her dinner was over before she began studying.)

Rules for Using Participial Phrases

1. A participial phrase must modify a noun

A participial phrase must describe, qualify, or modify a noun or pronoun. The noun a phrase modifies is called the referent and should be directly connected without any interrupting words.

Incorrect: Fearing an audit, financial records were closely scrutinized. (We’re amiss here. Who is fearing an audit?)

Correct: Fearing an audit, the company closely scrutinized its financial records. (Now it’s clear — the company is fearing an audit.)

2. Watch out for dangling participles

A dangling participle occurs when the noun it should modify is missing or unclear. This can cause confusion for the reader since the subject of the participial phrase may not be the subject of the sentence.

Incorrect: Walking down the street, a bird pooped on my car. (Did the bird poop while it was walking down the street? This sentence is absurd because the participial phrase is attached to the wrong noun.)

Correct: As I was walking down the street, a bird pooped on my car. (Here, it’s clear that ‘I’ am the one walking.)

3. Correct placement of Participial Phrases

To avoid confusion, place a participial phrase as close as possible to the noun it modifies.

Incorrect: I saw a cat in the garden sitting on the bench. (Is it the cat sitting on the bench or are you sitting on the bench?)

Correct: I saw a cat sitting on the bench in the garden. (Now it’s clear — the cat is sitting on the bench.)


Participial Phrases offer a compact way of providing additional descriptive detail in a sentence. They form a crucial part of our language, enabling us to add color and specificity to our writings. Understanding and use of participial phrases can lead to richer, more diverse sentence structures. Remember to follow basic rules to avoid any potential ambiguity.

With this, we conclude our tutorial on Participial Phrases. Happy writing and always remember, practice makes perfect!

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