Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2012. Do not copy without permission.
Participle Particulars, Part 2

Last time, I wrote about what exactly a participle is. This time, I’ll discuss how to use them.


Here’s a quick refresher:

 When you begin a sentence with a participial phrase, it needs to be set off by a comma.

            Tasting his lunch, he mentioned his love for polenta.

            Pretending to sleep, she hears the whole conversation.

Having been to the beach, her feet were covered with sand.


If the participial phrase comes in the middle of a sentence and the information is not essential, like any other inessential phrase, it should be offset by commas.

           He mentioned, as he tasted his lunch, that he loved polenta.

            She hears, as she pretends to sleep, the whole conversation.

Her feet, because she had been to the beach, were covered with sand.


If the participial phrase contains essential information, don’t set it off by commas.

           The bug causing the most difficulties will be discussed at Monday’s meeting.

           The bear that had recently eaten my sister ran away.


If the participial phrase is at the end of the sentence, set it off by a comma if it modifies a word from earlier in the sentence, but not if the modified word immediately precedes it.

           The man watched the bear, reaching for his stick.


In that one, the man, not the bear, reaches for the stick, because of the comma placement. The sentence would be clearer like this:

            The man reached for his stick as he watched the bear.


In that version, “reached” is just past tense and nothing complicated happened. You can tell who did the reaching and who did the watching, and there’s nothing ambiguous about it.


If the word being modified immediately precedes the participle phrase at the end of the sentence, it doesn’t need a comma.

           The man saw the bear wandering through the campground.


In this case, the bear is doing the wandering, not the man. Let’s look at the same sentence if the man is doing the wandering.

            Wandering through the campground, the man saw the bear.

            The man saw the bear, wandering through the campground.


I think the second sentence isn’t as clear that it’s the man who is wandering because most people aren’t familiar with the comma rule. So this arrangement can create confusion for your readers. If you’re writing the details about how to proceed with a process, you really want to be clear about which element acts on what other elements.

           Porting data to the FTP site, the server caught a virus.

            The server caught a virus, porting data to the FTP site.

The server caught a virus porting data to the FTP site.


The first and second sentences say that the server caught a virus while the server was busy porting data from the FTP site. The third sentence says that the virus was porting data to the FTP site and that the server caught it in the act. The critical difference is that in the second sentence, there’s a comma separating the gerund/participle from the noun “virus.” That’s all it takes. The participle modifies the noun it is right next to; if there’s any interruption at all, it modifies the next earlier noun.


This makes you realize how important all those little commas are, doesn’t it?


Here’s an interesting spin on participle usage: you can be very pleased with your new computer but you can’t be very performed on the stage. When you use a participle as an adjective—to describe something—you can modify it with an adverb like quite, very, or slightly. When it’s just the past tense of the verb, you can’t.


Pleased is an adverb when it’s used to modify the noun:

I am pleased.


Pleased is what I am busy being, so it’s not a verb here, it’s an adjective because it describes how or what I am. “Am” is the verb, a conjugation of “to be,” and you only get one verb used as a verb in such a short little sentence, so the participle is being used as an adjective here. You could easily substitute any number of other adjectives: I am blond, I am hungry, I am thrifty. All of these adjectives could be modified by the adverb “very.”


If you toss in a participle form used as a noun, though, you can’t modify the adjective with an adverb anymore. I am eating, I am writing, I am singing. See? It’s simply a matter of what role the participle plays in the sentence. But let’s get back to “pleased.”


Pleased is a verb when the word tells how the noun/pronoun is—the activity in the sentence.

He pleased me.


You could substitute lots of other past tense verbs in there. He tickled me, he irritated me, he showed me, he thrilled me—they all have the same basic structure and they all have the same type of meaning.

            Pronoun + verb + predicate


The person “he” did something that affects the predicate (“me” in this case, but it could just as easily be “the big dog,” “fourteen children” or “his parents when he became a dentist”) in a particular way. That means the participle is acting as a verb because it’s the “doing” part of the sentence.


So when it’s an adverb, the subject gets to “be” in a certain way:

           I am pleased, she is tickled, he was irritated, the dogs were shown, fourteen children were thrilled.


When it’s a verb, the subject gets to “do” in a certain way:

            I pleased them, she tickled the cat, he irritated the neighbor, the dogs showed the way, fourteen children thrilled an audience.


You know how you can’t use a word to define itself? I feel like I’ve written a whole blog like that, trying unsuccessfully to avoid using verbs. Let me know if I’ve made a big mess, and I’ll try to clear it up.