Participle Phrases

by Craig Shrives

What Are Participle Phrases? (with Examples)

A participle phrase is an adjective phrase headed by a participle.
participle phrase example

Examples of Participle Phrases

In each of these examples, the participle phrase is shaded and the participle is in bold.

(Remember that participle phrases function as adjectives.)
  • Peering over the top of his glasses, her tutor shook his head.
  • (The participle phrase describes "her tutor.")
  • Cracked from top to bottom, the mirror was now ruined.
  • (The participle phrase describes "the mirror.")
  • Look at the panther climbing the tree.
  • (The participle phrase describes "the panther.")
  • Sebastian reached across for the pipe, signalling his agreement with the chief's proposal.
  • (The participle phrase describes "Sebastian.")

A Participle Phrase Can Start with a Past Participle or a Present Participle

Here is a quick revision about participles. Remember that a participle is a verb form that can be used as an adjective. There are two types of participles:
  • Present Participles (ending "-ing"). Here is an example of one as an adjective:
    • The rising tide
  • Past Participles (usually ending "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n"). Here is an example of one as an adjective:
    • The risen cake
Read more about participles.

More Examples of Participle Phrases

In each row in the table below, there is an example of a present participle being used as an adjective, a past participle being used as an adjective, and then one of those participles being used in a participle phrase. (As before, the participle phrases are shaded, and the participles are in bold.)
The VerbThe Present ParticipleThe Past ParticipleExample of a Participle Phrase
To risethe rising sunthe risen sun Rising out of the sea in front of us, the sun started to warm our faces.
To printthe printing documentthe printed document Printed on the very first press, the document was extremely valuable.
To breakthe breaking newsthe broken news Broken by a government whistle-blower, the news is all over the media.

Perfect Participles

Also, keep an eye out for participle phrases headed by "perfect participles." Perfect participles are formed like this:

"Having" + [past participle]

  • Having seen
  • Having taken
  • Having read
These are not a third type of participle. The perfect participle is just a commonly used structure that features a present participle ("having") and a past participle.

Here are some more examples of perfect participles (shaded):
  • Having read your book, I now understand your position.
  • Having signed the document, Jason felt the weight of responsibility lift from his shoulders.
Participle phrases might seem complicated, but it is worth learning about them because they can be used to create a highly efficient sentence structure (see Reason 1) as well as being linked to some common writing errors.

So, here are four good reasons to think about participle phrases a little more clearly.

(In all of these examples, the participle phrases are shaded, the head participles are in bold, and the nouns being modified are underlined.)

(Reason 1) Use a participle phrase to say two or more things about your subject tidily.

A fronted participle phrase can be used to create a sentence structure that lets you say two or more things about a subject efficiently.
  • Communicating well upwards, downwards and laterally, John has managed expectations across the program and ensured that all projects remain oriented towards the program objective. correct tick
  • (The participle-phrase-upfront structure has allowed three observations about John to be shoehorned into one sentence.)
  • Having displayed a cooperative spirit from the outset, John has become a role model for those seeking to share research ideas and techniques. correct tick
  • (Here, it has allowed two observations about John to be recorded in a chronologically tidy way.)
Don't write every sentence in this style, but the odd one will give your text variety and help you to cram more information into fewer sentences. This structure is particularly useful when writing personal appraisals.

(Reason 2) Punctuate your participle phrases correctly.

Here are some general guidelines to help with correctly placing and punctuating a participle phrase.

(Guideline 1) When a participle phrase is at the front of a sentence, offset it with a comma and put the noun being modified immediately after the comma.
  • Removing his glasses, the professor shook his head with disappointment. correct tick
(Guideline 2) When a participle phrase follows the noun it's modifying, don't use a comma.
  • Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality. correct tick (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
However, if the participle phrase is nonessential (i.e., you could delete it or put it in brackets), then offset with a comma (or two commas if it's mid-sentence). (You could also use dashes or brackets.)
  • The yellow Ferrari, unregistered in the UK and probably stolen in France, was used as the get-away car. correct tick
Read more about this issue on the page about restrictive (or essential) modifiers.

(Guideline 3) When a participle phrase is at the end of your sentence and not immediately after its noun, offset it with a comma to help show that it's not modifying whatever is to its left.
  • The boys loved their boxing gloves, wearing them even to bed. correct tick

(Reason 3) Avoid dangling modifiers, especially when using fronted participle phrases.

Dangling modifiers are most commonly seen in sentences starting with participle phrases. (A dangling modifier is an error caused by failing to use the word that the modifier is meant to be modifying.)
  • Having taken the antimalarial tablets religiously, the malaria diagnosis came as a shock. wrong cross
  • (The shaded text is a participle phrase headed by a perfect participle. It's meant to be an adjective to a noun (or a pronoun), but that noun doesn't feature in the sentence. That's why nothing is underlined.)
  • Overcome by emotion, the whole speech was delivered in two- and three-word bursts. wrong cross
  • (The shaded participle phrase is meant to be an adjective to a noun, but the noun is missing. That's why nothing is underlined.)
To avoid a dangling modifier, assume that any participle phrase you put at the start of a sentence is "dangling" (i.e., isn't modifying anything) until you've written the noun (or pronoun) it is modifying.
  • Having taken the antimalarial tablets religiously, Sarah was shocked by the malaria diagnosis. correct tick
  • Overcome by emotion, he delivered the whole speech in two- and three-word bursts. correct tick
Read more about dangling modifiers.

(Reason 4) Avoid misplaced modifiers when using participle phrases.

With a dangling modifier, the noun being modified is missing. With a misplaced modifier, the noun being modified is too far away. To avoid a misplaced modifier, make sure it's obvious which noun (or pronoun) your participle phrase is modifying. Often, context will tell your readers which noun the modifier belongs to, but a misplaced modifier will at the very least cause a reading stutter and portray you as a clumsy writer. Sometimes, a misplaced modifier can lead to your sentence being ambiguous.
  • The meerkats are acutely aware of the eagles, scurrying from burrow to burrow. wrong cross
  • (This is not wrong technically (see Reason 2: Guideline 3 above), but it is clumsy and potentially ambiguous if you knew nothing about meerkats or eagles. Note also that if the comma were missing, this sentence would definitely be wrong because it would mean "the eagles that are scurrying from burrow to burrow" (see Reason 2: Guideline 2 above).)
  • Tattered but not ripped, Lee handed the ticket to the doorman. wrong cross
  • (This is clumsy and potentially ambiguous.)
  • Tim saw David Attenborough, filming the leatherback turtles for Blue Planet. wrong cross
  • (This is clumsy. There are better ways to avoid ambiguity than relying on that comma.)
The best way to avoid a misplaced modifier with a participle phrase is to put it next to the noun it's modifying. Let's fix the examples above.
  • Scurrying from burrow to burrow, the meerkats are acutely aware of the eagles. correct tick
  • Lee handed the ticket, tattered but not ripped, to the doorman. correct tick
  • When he was filming the leatherback turtles for Blue Planet, Tim saw David Attenborough. correct tick
  • (Rewording your sentence is often a good idea.)
Read more about misplaced modifiers.

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See Also

What are adjective phrases? What are participles? What are present participles? What are past participles? What are misplaced modifiers? What are dangling modifiers? Glossary of grammatical terms

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