What are participles?
Participles are verbs that are used as adjectives or adverbs. We can also say that they may be used as nouns, though we generally refer to these as gerunds. Participles come in two forms: an active present participle (ending in –ing), and a past passive participle (ending in –ed, or an irregular form). We can use a participle the same way we use an adjective or adverb (as a one-word modifier) or as participle phrase (sometimes called a participle clause, though this might be confusing as there are no visible subject-verb combinations).
The present participle of the verb play is playing. The past participle is played
The present participle of the verb eat is eating. The past participle is eaten.
Note: We can use the active forms of state verbs (know, love, understand, etc.) when they are used as participles (knowing, loving, understanding, etc.—Knowing he had no chance at winning the game, Bill decided to forfeit. )
A common use of participle adjectives is to express feelings:
Interested interesting bored boring excited exciting etc.
Active use: the –ing participle is the cause or source of the feeling. An interesting book, then, is one that captures the interest of its reader.
Passive use: the –ed ending is the feeling itself. It can only be used to modify a person (and some cases, animals), but never things. As such, an interested investor is one who feels that he might want to pursue an investment because it seems good.
These participles can appear before the noun they modify or after a be verb:
Ex: The frightened boy ran to his mother.
The frightening images of war were deemed too graphic to broadcast on television.
The schoolchildren were bored by the guide’s speech and bad jokes.
The film was very boring, so Jake and his girlfriend decided to go bowling instead.
NB: Some participles change meaning when used in different positions in a sentence. For example, the participle concerned means worried, or involved/affected, depending on how it is used in the sentence:
Ex: The concerned parents were waiting for news on their children’s fate. – The worried parents.
The parents concerned were asked to meet at the hotel for more information. –The parents who were affected by the situation.
When used as adjectives/adverbs, or in phrases, participles can be a little confusing. This is because they can be used as either an adjective or an adverb, and sometimes the difference is not very clear:
Ex: The shouting teens were asked to quiet down or leave the theater. (adj.)—describes the teens
Shouting, the teens finally left the theater. (adv.)—describes how they left (while shouting)
The pleased audience gave the manager a standing ovation. (adj.)
The manager went back to his office relieved. (adv.)
Wearing a gorgeous red dress, Faith was the center of attention at the ball. (adj. phrase)
Used wisely, $20 can last a person a long time, even in the big city. (adv. phrase)
It is important to know how to construct and read these types of phrases as they are crucial to good reading and writing; they provide the writer with sentence variety, as well as the ability to include a lot of information in a sentence without making that sentence too long.
How to construct participles:
The first thing we need to clarify is that present and past participles are confusing in their names; participles are not limited to present- or past-tensed verbs. It is therefore better to think of participles as active or passive only.
The next thing to understand is that participles, in essence, are reduced clauses, whether adjective or adverb. In other words, they are adjective clauses reduced to phrases, or adverb clauses reduced to phrases. By reduced, we generally mean that a part or parts of the clause have been removed to leave only a phrase in which the subject and verb are innately understood.
Ex: Active: Still feeling the impact of the loss, the team could not compose themselves in time to prepare for the next game, which they consequently lost as well.
Passive: The Academy of the Arts and Sciences, formerly known as the Pearson School for the Arts, changed its name to reflect the shifting needs of today’s employers.
These two sentences, when expanded to their full forms, might be written as;
As they still felt the impact of the loss, the team could not compose themselves in time to prepare for the next game, which they consequently lost as well. (They couldn’t compose themselves as a result of their emotions.)
The team, who still felt the impact of the loss, could not compose themselves in time to prepare for the next game, which they consequently lost as well. (extra information about the team, namely their emotions before the second game)
The Academy of the Arts and Sciences, which had formerly been known as the Pearson School for the Arts, changed its name to reflect the shifting needs of today’s employers.
The biggest difficulty in dealing with these phrases is understanding if it is being used as an adjective or an adverb. Sometimes the difference is a matter of choice. In most cases, however, the writer should make an effort to make the usage as clear as possible.
Note: Although the subject is removed from the clause in order to create a participle, it must be clearly understood that the implied subject of the participle and the subject of the independent clause that it modifies are the same.
In other words, feeling implies that the team (members) are the ones feeling, as they are also the subjects of the independent clause. Likewise, formerly known implies that the Academy was formerly known as it is the subject of the independent clause.
Let’s look at two of the examples mentioned earlier:
Ex: Wearing a gorgeous red dress, Faith was the center of attention at the ball. (adj. phrase) – Faith is the subject of the independent clause and the implied subject of the participle wearing)
Used wisely, $20 can last a person a long time, even in the big city. (adv. phrase),
In both of these examples the reduction is clear:
Faith, who was wearing a gorgeous red dress, was the center of attention at the ball.
If it is used wisely, $20 can last a person a long time, even in the big city.
You will notice that the position of the phrase is optional:
Faith, wearing a gorgeous red dress, was the center of attention at the ball.
$20, if used wisely, can last a person a long time, even in the big city.
Note: Unlike the full adjective clause, the adjective participle phrase can begin a sentence if it is not an identifying phrase (i.e. a modifying clause/phrase).
The adverb clause, when it follows the subject, needs to retain the clause marker (if).
Adjective participle phrase
There are two ways to reduce an adjective clause:
1) Remove the relative pronoun and the be verb when the pronoun is the subject of the clause and the clause already contains an active participle (as in a progressive tense), or a passive participle:
Ex: The man who is feeding the lions is a professional animal handler.
The man feeding the lions is a professional animal handler.
The topic that was being discussed was causing many people a lot of trouble.
The topic being discussed was causing many people a lot of trouble.
The Smiths, who were invited at the last minute, declined the invitation.
The Smiths, invited at the last minute, declined the invitation.
Invited at the last minute, the Smiths declined the invitation.
The project, which is set to be completed next week, cost the city over $1 million.
The project, set to be completed next week, cost the city over $1 million.
Set to be completed next week, the project cost the city over $1 million.
2) In some cases, we can reduce the pronoun (when it is also the subject), and the active verb into an active participle.
Ex: Rio, which is the city that will host the next summer Olympics, is frantically working to prepare all the facilities for the great events that will take place there.
Rio, the city hosting the next summer Olympics, is frantically working to prepare all the facilities for the great events that will take place there.
The city hosting the next summer Olympics, Rio, is frantically working to prepare all the facilities for the great events that will take place there.
The judge who will preside over the case has many years of experience dealing with this kind of situation.
The judge presiding over the case has many years of experience dealing with this kind of situation.
The athletes who attended last year’s race have vowed not to return this year if safety rules are not put in place.
The athletes attending last year’s race have vowed not to return this year if safety rules are not put in place.
Notice that the tense of the verb is not important. What is important is that the message is clear and obvious in the participle.
Adverb participle phrase:
More often than not, adverb participle phrases will retain the subordinating conjunction in order to make sure that the relationship between clauses is very clear. However, if the relationship is obvious, it is possible to reduce the conjunction as well as the subject and verb into the participle:
Ex: After Felix had finished his dinner, he felt bloated and in need of a nap.
After finishing his dinner, Felix felt bloated and in need of a nap.
Finishing his dinner, Felix felt bloated and in need of a nap.
Having finished his dinner, Felix felt bloated and in need of a nap. – We use having as a perfect participle, that is, when the meaning is after (after he had finished…).
When it is heated to the right temperature, gold can be molded into any shape the jeweler wants.
(when) Heated to the right temperature, gold can be molded into any shape the jeweler wants.
If you are not sure that the relationship is very clear or obvious, include the conjunction.
NB: Remember that the subject of both clauses must be the same. Otherwise you run the risk of modifying the wrong noun and having the sentence not make sense. This is true for both adjective and adverb participle phrases. Look at the following example:
Ex: Standing next to the window, the entire countryside was visible to the young woman.
The implied subject of the participle standing is the young woman. However, the subject of the independent clause that follows is the entire countryside. This suggests that the countryside was standing next to the window, which is of course impossible and illogical. The correct way to write the above sentence is:
Standing next to the window, the young woman could view the entire countryside.
Notice that we changed the voice from passive to active, and we changed the main verb of the independent clause as well (was visible—could view). If, however, we wanted to maintain the form of the independent clause, we would have to match the participle to it. In this case we would use a past participle and most likely we would use it as an adverb rather than an adjective:
Ex: Viewed from the window, the entire countryside was visible to the young woman. – (When (it was) viewed from the window, the entire countryside was visible to the young woman.) This changes the overall meaning of the sentence. We no longer know where the woman is (standing next to the window).
Adjective, Adverb, or Gerund?
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the uses of the active participle:
Ex: Walking her dog, Linda noticed that the park, littered with garbage and empty beer cans, was full of police officers asking teenagers questions. (The underlined portion in this example is the independent clause.)
Walking her dog, —this could be an adjective participle modifying Linda (Linda, who was walking her dog, noticed…), or an adverb participle (while she was walking her dog, Linda noticed…—If you want to be very clear about the use, leave the conjunction while in the sentence.)
Linda noticed that the park, —part of the independent clause, with the noun clause object split
littered with garbage and empty beer cans,—adjective participle (passive) (which was littered with …, or which had been littered with …)
was full of police officers—second part of the noun clause object of the independent clause
asking teenagers questions.—adjective participle (active), who were asking …
Ex: Walking her dog every morning is Linda’s favourite way to keep in shape. (This sentence consists of only an independent clause and modifiers. Walking in this example is a gerund and is also the subject of the clause.)