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Past Participle Phrases

What Are Past Participle Phrases?

homesitemapA-Z grammar terms past participle phrases
A past participle phrase is an adjective phrase headed by a past participle. For example:
  • Inspired by the classics, Alice wrote with elegance and depth.
  • (The past participle phrase "Inspired by the classics" is headed by the past participle "inspired". The whole phrase is functioning like an adjective that modifies "Alice.")
The past participle in a past participle phrase describes an action that happened before the main verb in the sentence. This is a key point. In this example, the action of the past participle ("inspired") happened before the main verb ("wrote").

It's a verbal, not a verb!

A past participle is formed from a verb, which is why we can talk about the action of the participle. However, a participle is not a verb. It is a verbal, which is a verb form that does not function as a verb. These past participles all function as adjectives.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Past Participle Phrases
  • Reminder of Participles
  • More Examples of Past Participle Phrases
  • Other Types of Participle Phrase
  • Why Past Participle Phrases Are Important
  • Test Time!
past participle phrase example

Examples of Past Participle Phrases

In each of these examples, the past participle phrase is shaded, the past participle is in bold, and the noun (pronoun or noun phrase) being modified is underlined.
  • Loved by everyone, the teacher was sad to leave the school.
  • Uprooted by the storm, the trees lay across the road.
  • Told by an mysterious old man, the story was remarkable but believable.
  • Left in the rain overnight, the book was now ruined.
  • Enlightened by his travels, John decided to quit his job.
Key Points:

(1) Do not forget that the action of the past participle occurs before the main verb.

(2) Do not forget that past participle phrases (like all participle phrases) function as adjectives.

Participle phrases typically sit at the start of a sentence and followed by a comma. When this sentence structure is used, the subject – which is always a noun, a pronoun or a noun phrase – must follow immediately after the comma.

Reminder of Participles

Let's remind ourselves about participles. A participle is a verb form that can be used as an adjective (e.g., the boiled water) or to create a verb tense (e.g., I have boiled the water). There are two types of participles:
  • (1) Present Participles. Present participles always end "-ing." Here are three examples of present participles used as normal adjectives:
    • The boiling water
    • The failing economy
    • Our improving results
    Notice that present participles are about ongoing actions.
  • (2) Past Participles. Past participles have different endings (usually ending "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n"). Here are three examples of past participles used as normal adjectives:
    • The boiled water
    • The failed economy
    • Our improved results
    Notice that past participles are about completed actions.
Read more about participles.

More Examples of Past Participle Phrases

Look at the table below. In each row, there is an example of a past participle being used as an adjective and then in a past participle phrase. (As before, the participle phrases are shaded, the participles are in bold, and the nouns being modified are underlined.)
The VerbThe Present ParticipleExample of a Present Participle Phrase
to overwhelmthe overwhelmed studentOverwhelmed by the awe of the volcano, I forgot to take any photographs.
to taintthe tainted reputationTainted by scandal, the politician was asked to resign.
to hauntthe haunted houseHaunted by memories, the soldier found solace in the quiet countryside.

Other Types of Participle Phrase

The past participle phrase is just one type of participle phrase. There are three types:

(1) Past participle phrase

A past participle phrase features a past participle:

Examples:

  • Driven by hatred, Anne is plotting against her former partner.
  • Strengthened by adversity, the community stood united.
  • Inspired by a true story, the film moved audiences around the world.
Remember. With a past participle phrase, the action of the participle occurs before the main verb.

(2) Present participle phrase

A present participle phrase features a present participle:

Examples:

  • Walking through the park, she thought about her life goals.
  • Playing with the dog, Jack forgets all his worries.
  • Pretending to read his book, he glanced over at the arguing couple.
With a present participle phrase, the action of the participle occurs at the same time as the main verb. In this example, "pretending" occurs at the same time as "glanced over." Read more about past participle phrases.

(3) Perfect participle phrase

A perfect participle phrase is formed like this:

"Having" + [past participle] + the remainder

Examples:

  • Having finished his homework, Tom went outside to play.
  • Having seen the movie, they decided to read the book.
  • Having cleaned the house, Lisa ordered herself a pizza.
A perfect participle phrase emphasizes that the action in the phrase has been completed before the main verb occurs.

The "perfect participle" features a present participle ("having") and a past participle. It is always used in a phrase. In other words, it cannot be used as a standalone adjective like a genuine participle.

Read more about perfect participle phrases.

Why Past Participle Phrases Are Important

It is worth learning about past participle phrases because they are useful for creating efficient sentences (see Reason 1), and they are associated with some common writing errors (see Reasons 2, 3, and 4).

(Reason 1) Use a past participle phrase to load a sentence with information.

With a past participle phrase, you can say two or more things about a subject efficiently.
  • Driven by exceptional dedication and an unparalleled work ethic, Terry has demonstrated a remarkable ability to tackle complex challenges and contribute to the company's success. correct tick
  • (This sentence structure has allowed four observations about Terry to be loaded into one sentence.)
This structure is useful for personal appraisals. Of course, you should not write every sentence in this style. However, used sparingly, this structure helps with sentence-style variety and allows you to load more information into fewer sentences.

(Reason 2) Punctuate your past participle phrases correctly.

Here are some general guidelines to help with correctly placing and punctuating past participle phrases.

(Guideline 1) When a past participle phrase is at the front of a sentence (described as a "fronted participle phrase"), offset it with a comma and write the subject of the sentence next.

  • Guided by a strong sense of responsibility, Terry has reliably met all deadlines. correct tick
(Guideline 2) When a past participle phrase follows its noun, use a comma only if the noun is not immediately before the phrase.
  • Terry has become an invaluable asset to our team, recognized by peers and supervisors alike. correct tick
  • (In this example, a comma is required because the past participle phrase modifies "Terry." The comma helps with ensuring that readers do not think the phrase is modifying "our team.")
There is a little more to understand with comma placement, but this guideline will see you right for most scenarios. Read more about this issue on the page about restrictive (or essential) modifiers.

(Reason 3) Avoid dangling modifiers, especially when using a fronted past participle phrase.

A dangling modifier is a grammar error. It occurs when the word that a modifier is meant to be modifying is missing.
  • Motivated by a passion for excellence, his peers routinely comment on his work ethic. wrong cross
  • (The shaded text is a past participle phrase. Here, it is positioned to modify "his peers," but that is an error. It is Terry who is "motivated by a passion for excellence," but "Terry" is not mentioned in the sentence. Nothing is underlined in this sentence because nothing is being modified. The past participle phrase is dangling. The word it is supposed to be modifying is missing.)

Top Tip

To avoid a dangling modifier, assume that your past participle phrase is "dangling" (i.e., isn't modifying anything) until you've written the noun (or pronoun) it is modifying.
Here is a corrected version:
  • Motivated by a passion for excellence, Terry is routinely praised by his for his work ethic. correct tick
  • (This is correct. The past participle phrase now modifies "Terry.")
  • Motivated by a passion for excellence, Terry's work ethic is routinely praised by his peers. wrong cross
  • (Watch out for constructions like this one. This is wrong. Even though the word "Terry" follows the comma, the noun phrase is "Terry's work ethic." Remember. The phrase modify "Terry" not "[his] work ethic.")
Read more about dangling modifiers.

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

With a dangling modifier, the noun being modified is missing. With a misplaced modifier, the noun being modified is too far away from its modifier. To avoid a misplaced modifier, make sure it is clear to your readers which noun (or pronoun) your participle phrase is modifying. (Usually, context tells them which noun the modifier belongs to, but – even so – a misplaced modifier will cause a reading stutter and portray you as a clumsy writer. Also, a misplaced modifier often creates ambiguity.
  • The tree lay across the road, destroyed by the wind. wrong cross
  • (This is clumsy if the wind destroyed the tree and not the road. There are better ways to avoid ambiguity than relying on the comma.)
The best way to avoid a misplaced modifier with a past participle phrase (or any modifier) is to put it next to the noun it's modifying. Let's fix the example above.
  • Destroyed by the wind, the tree lay across the road. correct tick
This was a relatively simple fix. Often, rewording your sentence is necessary. Read more about misplaced modifiers.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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