Present Participle Phrases

What Are Present Participle Phrases?

A present participle phrase is an adjective phrase headed by a present participle. For example:
  • Racing against the clock, Sarah worked late into the night to finish the project.
  • (The present participle phrase "Racing against the clock" is headed by the present participle "racing". The whole phrase is functioning like an adjective that modifies "Sarah.")
The present participle in a present participle phrase describes an action that is happening at the same time as the main verb in the sentence. This is a key point. In this example, the main verb is "worked." The action of the present participle ("racing") is happening at the same time as "worked."

It's a verbal, not a verb!

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

Table of Contents

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

Examples of Present Participle Phrases

In each of these examples, the present participle phrase is shaded, the present participle is in bold, and the noun (pronoun or noun phrase) being modified is underlined.
  • Watching the sunrise, Tony felt a sense of peace.
  • Barking excitedly, Dexter greeted the family as they returned home.
  • Holding her nose, she jumped from the branch into the the lake.
  • Avoiding the main roads, the ambulance arrived on time.
  • Chewing her pencil, Dawn searched for the perfect adjective.
  • Laughing when he shouldn't, Toby was starting to annoy the team.
  • Shivering uncontrollably, they hugged each other for warmth.
Key Points:

(1) Do not forget that the action of the present participle occurs at the same time as the main verb.

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

As is the case in all of these examples, a present participle phrase is usually used at the start of a sentence and followed by a comma. When this sentence structure is used, the first thing after the comma must be the noun (pronoun or noun phrase) being modified by the phrase.

Reminder of Participles

Remember that a participle is a verb form that can be used as an adjective. There are two types of participles:
  • (1) Present Participles. Present participles always end "-ing." Here are some examples of present participles used as normal adjectives:
    • The dripping wax
    • The boiling water
    • The rising sun
  • (2) Past Participles. Past participles have different endings (usually ending "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n"). Here are some examples of past participles used as normal adjectives:
    • The dripped wax
    • The boiled water
    • The risen sun
Read more about participles.

More Examples of Present Participle Phrases

In each row in the table below, there is an example of a present participle being used as an adjective and then in a present 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 whispera whispering voiceWhispering into her ear, John explained the significance of the poem.
to carrya carrying handleCarrying the bowl carefully, Sarah passed it to her mother.
to noda nodding dogNodding in agreement, the committee showed their support for the new proposal.

Other Types of Participle Phrase

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

(1) Present participle phrase

A present participle phrase features a present participle:

Example:

  • 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."

(2) Past participle phrase

A past participle phrase features a past participle:

Examples:

  • Battered by the storm, the barn was ready to collapse.
  • Driven by hatred, Anne plotted against her former partner.
  • Surrounded by hills, our village was not visible from the sea.
With a past participle phrase, the action of the participle occurs before the main verb. In the first example, barn was "battered by the storm" before it was ready to collapse. 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 read your book, Molly now understands your motivation.
  • Having examined the bridge, I believe it is unsafe.
  • Having been face to face with a great white shark, I am now less scared of them than I was.
A perfect participle phrase emphasizes that the action in the phrase has been completed before the main verb occurs. In the first example, the phrase emphasizes that the book was read before Molly understood.

The perfect participle is not a third type of participle. The "perfect participle" features a present participle ("having") and a past participle. It is always used in a phrase. It cannot be used as a standalone adjective like a genuine participle.

Read more about perfect participle phrases.

Why Present Participle Phrases Are Important

It is worth learning about present participle phrases because they can be used to create an efficient sentence structure (see Reason 1), and they are linked to some common writing errors (see Reasons 2, 3, and 4).

(Reason 1) Use a present participle phrase to say several things about your subject.

With a present participle phrase, you can say two or more things about a subject efficiently.
  • Communicating effectively internally and externally, Simon has managed his team's needs and our stakeholders' expectations well and has ensured that all projects remain on schedule. correct tick
  • (This sentence structure has allowed three observations about Simon to be shoehorned into one sentence.)
This structure is particularly useful when writing personal appraisals. Obviously, don't write every sentence in this style, but, used occasionally, this structure will give your text variety and help you cram more information into fewer sentences.

(Reason 2) Punctuate your present participle phrases correctly.

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

(Guideline 1) When a present participle phrase is fronted (i.e., at the front of a sentence), offset it with a comma and put the noun being modified immediately after the comma.

  • Sighing deeply after every few words, the professor continued his depressing lecture. correct tick
(Guideline 2) When a present participle phrase follows its noun, use a comma only if the noun is not immediately before the phrase.
  • The professor continued his depressing lecture, sighing deeply after every few words. correct tick
  • (In this example, a comma is required because the present participle phrase modifies "the professor." The comma makes it clear that the phrase is not modifying "his depressing lecture.")
  • The depressing lecture was continued by the professor sighing deeply after every few words. (Here, a comma is not required because the phrase immediately follows the noun it is modifying.)
There is a bit 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 present participle phrase.

A dangling modifier is an error caused by failing to use the word that the modifier is meant to be modifying.
  • Reading your letter, my dog has been fitted with an anti-bark collar. wrong cross
  • (The shaded text is a present participle phrase. Here, it modifies "my dog," but that is clearly an error. The dog didn't read anything. Note that nothing is underlined in this sentence. There is no noun being modified. The present participle phrase is dangling.)

Top Tip

To avoid a dangling modifier, assume that your present 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:
  • Reading your letter, I have fitted my dog with an anti-bark collar. correct tick
Read more about dangling modifiers.

(Reason 4) Avoid misplaced modifiers when using present 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's obvious which noun (or pronoun) your participle phrase is modifying. (Usually, context tells 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. Also, a misplaced modifier often creates ambiguity.
  • Jack took lots of photos for his family, swimming with dolphins. wrong cross
  • (As only Jack is swimming with the dolphins, this is clumsy. There are better ways to avoid ambiguity than relying on the comma.)
The best way to avoid a misplaced modifier with a present participle phrase (or any modifier) is to put it next to the noun it's modifying. Let's fix the example above.
  • Swimming with dolphins, Jack took lots of photos for his family. 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.