Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2012. Do not copy without permission.
Participle Particulars, Part 1

A participle is a funny kind of verb called a “verbal adjective,” which means that it has characteristics of both verbs and adjectives. Within a sentence, the verb describes the action and the adjective describes a noun; a participle is a bit of a fence sitter because it does both.


As you learned in the previous blog (Verbs), verbs impart information about when the action in the sentence took place using tense. Creating tense is just a way of conjugating, or changing something about the original form of the word to indicate the time of the activity or the object of the verb (the thing the action takes place about or on).


A participle is a form of the verb that most often ends in “ing” or “ed,” so it looks just like a gerund (present tense) or a simple past tense verb. But because participles function partially as adjectives modifying a noun or a pronoun just like a regular adjective, you’ll see participles in the neighborhood of a noun and another verb.


There are two types of participles: past and present. Present participles end in “ing,” and past participles end in “ed,” “en,” “d,” “t,” or “n.” Participles in any tense are found in a sentence with another verb; the non-participle verb imparts the really important action that happens in the sentence. To find the main action in a sentence, look for the non-participle verb. Here’s a sentence with two verbs.


The barking dog was afraid of the dark.


In this sentence, you could drop the gerund verb “barking” and still have a perfectly good sentence because this time, the participle form of “to bark” (that’s the infinitive form of the verb) acts as an adjective. “Was” is the important action verb in the sentence and “barking” is the less active and more descriptive participle. But that was a nice simple sentence. Let’s look at one that’s more complicated.


Shaking off the rain, the dog made the room wet.


In this sentence, the first chunk, “shaking off the rain,” is called a participial phrase. It has a participle (shaking) and a noun phrase (off the rain) that function as the direct object in the first chunk (before the comma). That both the first chunk and the second chunk (after the comma) have a direct object means that the most important subject of the sentence could be either “the dog” or “the rain.” It’s hard to tell, and it doesn’t matter. Both nouns have equal importance in this particular sentence. “The rain” is the direct object of the participial verb “shaking,” and “the dog” is the direct object of the verb “made.” Do you see? The verb or participle acts on the noun so you know what the noun is doing. The major difference between the two clauses is that the “shaking” part is not a complete sentence. The second part (after the comma) could be all by itself and that shorter sentence imparts the majority of the meaning for the whole sentence. Here’s another one.


Having eaten the cake, the child was content.

This one uses what is called a present participle, placing the action in the very recent past. “Having eaten” is two participles in a row. “Having” is the present tense “ing” form you’ve already looked at, and “eaten” is the past participial form of “to eat.” This apparent tense disagreement is what lets us know that it’s a very recent past event.


It’s important to place a participial phrase as close to the noun it modifies as possible, or your meaning will be eaten like so much cake.


Having eaten the cake, his supper went untasted.


This is difficult to correct because the basic meaning is obvious: he has eaten too much cake and now he can’t eat his supper. But that’s not what this sentence actually says. Look for the nouns. There’s “cake” and “supper.” There are two verbs in the first chunk, just like in the previous example. But in the second chunk, the verb is right next to “supper,” not next to “his” (“he” was the implied object of the first chunk), so the object of the second chunk is “supper.” This sentence says that the supper has eaten the cake. That doesn’t make too much sense, does it?


In the previous example “cake” and “child” were the nouns. The verb that modified each was right next to the noun. In this second sentence, that means that “having eaten” modifies “the cake,” which makes sense. But “went untasted” modifies “supper,” so “supper” is the direct object and hardly any suppers taste cake, if you follow my meaning. The pronoun in the sentence (his) is meant to be the subject, but because it isn’t modified by a verb, it isn’t the subject.


You can fix this sentence in several ways.


Having eaten the cake, he wasn’t hungry for supper.

His supper went untasted because he ate the cake.

His supper went untasted because he had eaten the cake.

He ate the cake and could no longer eat supper.


In this last example, “he” is the direct object of the noun both before an after the word “and.” That’s one of the cool things conjunctions can do (see my earlier blog on Conjunctions).


Okay, I feel like I’ve gotten a little complicated here, so let’s just look at a basic rule.


Verbs modify nouns. For best effect, place the verb next to the noun it modifies.


A participle is just a flavor of verb that provides descriptive information about the noun, either in action on the noun or regarding tense.


There will be more about participles in a future blog, but I think that’s enough for the moment, eh?