English Grammar


by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. A participle is a verbal adjective; that is, it is both a verb and an adjective. Like infinitives and gerunds, participles have tense and voice but no person and number. There are five participial forms of most transitive verbs: present active (carrying), present passive (being carried), present-perfect active (having carried), present-perfect passive (having been carried), and past (carried). Participles can function both as attributive adjectives and as predicate adjectives. They can also serve as objective complements. They have an essential role in nominative absolutes, and they have an independent use. 

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2. Participles as attributive adjectives: Participles and participial phrases can modify subjects, predicate nominatives, direct objects, indirect objects, objects of prepositions, appositives, objective complements, and adverbial objectives. Here are several examples:

- Lost, the puppy wandered from house to house in search of food. A past participle modifies a subject.

- Having run all the way from Marathon to Athens, the messenger died. A participial phrase introduced by a present- perfect participle modifies a subject.

- Having been shot, he was rushed to a nearly hospital. A present-perfect passive participle modifies a subject.

- The first thing they saw was a uniformed man riding a white horse. A participial phrase introduced by a present active participle modifies a predicate nominative.

- Do you know the person being arrested? A present passive participle modifies a direct object.

- They gave the girl sleeping in the corner an award for honesty. A participial phrase introduced by a present participle modifies an indirect object.

- The children found all the eggs except the one hidden in an old flower pot. A participial phrase introduced by a past participle modifies an object of a preposition.

- Maryís life was saved by her sister, the woman standing next to her. A participial phrase introduced by a present participle modifies an appositive.

- Thomas Heywood considered Mistress Frankford a woman killed with kindness and so titled his play. A participial phrase introduced by a past participle modifies an objective complement.

- The finished product did not seem to be worth the time and effort invested in it. A participial phrase introduced by a past participle modifies a compound adverbial objective.

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3. Participles as predicate adjectives:

- The children came running. The intransitive verb came functions as a linking verb in this sentence.

- You were seen lying on a park bench across from the train station. The passive verb were seen acts as a linking verb.

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4. Participles as objective complements:

- They feel themselves being drawn through a tunnel.

- Each morning the neighbors heard him whistling the same tune.


5. Participles in nominative absolutes: A nominative absolute is a grammatically independent expression consisting of a noun or a pronoun modified by a participle. Here are two examples (the underlined expressions are nominative absolutes):

- Their funds exhausted, they knew one of them had to find a job fast.

- Victory having been accomplished at a terrible price, the homecoming was bittersweet at best.

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6. While careful speakers of English avoid a dangling participle like the plague, they typically allow themselves to dangle the present participle speaking. Here is an example of this participle used independently:

- Speaking of food, itís time to head home and light the grill. The participle speaking has nothing to modify; one can argue that it functions here as a preposition. 

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7. In the sentence While driving through the park, we saw two deer, the words while driving through the park constitute an elliptical clause. They are short for while we were driving through the park, in which the present participle driving is the participial component of a present progressive finite verb. The analysis of expressions like before closing the door or after leaving the party is more difficult.

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8. Not every past participle is passive. A few intransitive verbs have past participles, and since intransitive verbs have no voice, their past participles are, strictly speaking, neither active nor passive. They resemble passive participles in form and active participles in meaning: gone, grown, fallen, risen, and slept. We can say that someone is gone for the day or slept out. A middle-aged couple may have several grown children. Christians speak of fallen sinners and a risen Lord.

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9. In particular cases, it can be difficult to differentiate between participles and mere adjectives. One of the criteria is the consensus of dictionaries. If most dictionaries show hurt, for example, as an adjective, then it is an adjective in a sentence like He is hurt. Of course, it is a participle when used as part of the passive voice, e.g., Ten firemen were hurt when the roof collapsed. Another criterion is replaceability: If tired in a sentence like We are tired can be replaced by another adjective of the same meaning, then it is an adjective; it can, in fact, be replaced by weary, a pure adjective. Tired in We are tired is an adjective.

10. All true passive-voice forms have a functioning past participle as a component. A static (or false) passive, on the other hand, includes a past participle that functions as a simple adjective. Notice the use of the word closed in the following sentences: 1) At the beginning of the period, the classroom door is closed by the teacher; 2) The door is closed until the end of the period. The first closed is a true participle, part of the present passive is closed. The second closed is a predicate adjective after the linking verb is. It is important to keep in mind that in the passive voice something is happening. Nothing is happening in the sentence The door is closed until the end of the period.

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11. Participles used as nouns: The injured and the dying were placed on stretchers and rushed to field hospitals. Injured is a past participle and dying is a present participle. Both are used here as nouns.

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12. There being no time for discussion is a nominative absolute (see below) using the present participle being and introduced by the expletive there.

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13. In expressions like fishing pole and batting helmet, fishing and batting are not participles; if they were, the poles would be fishing and the helmets would be batting. It is best to think of these words, which are actually gerunds used as adjectives, as simple adjectives. Similarly, hunting and drinking are gerunds used as adjectives in the expressions hunting license and drinking fountain.

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14. Some words that look like present participles are actually prepositions or regular adjectives. For example, while loved, mitigated, rewarding, and fulfilling are participles, unloved, unmitigated, unrewarding, and unfulfilling are not. Some words ending in -ed are formed from nouns and not from verbs (e.g., diseased, talented, cultured); such words often look like participles, but they are simply adjectives.

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15. Even if you wouldnít know dangling participles from potato peelers, you have probably heard of them. Hereís one:

- We had a good view of Lake Powell flying from Denver to Los Angeles.

"In which direction was the lake flying?" one could ask. Do you know how to correct this sentence without changing a single word? Iím inclined to think you do, but Iíll show you just to be sure:

- Flying from Denver to Los Angeles, we had a good view of Lake Powell.

The secret is to place the participle in a position that forces the reader to associate it with the noun or pronoun that it needs to modify. This position is usually next to the that noun or pronoun. Here are several more sentences containing dangling participles:

- Hoping not to intrude, you must go about your normal activities during my visit. Since the intended meaning of the sentence does not allow the participle hoping to modify the subject you, the participle dangles. The sentence could be changed as follows: Hoping not to intrude, I ask you to go about your normal activities during my visit.

- Having vowed never to procrastinate again, her next novel was finished in seven months. It is at best a questionable practice to make a participle modify a possessive pronoun, even when the latter is the first word of the main clause. The sentence should be changed, perhaps like this: Having vowed never to procrastinate again, she finished her next novel in seven months. Now the introductory participle modifies the subject of the sentence, and all is once again right with the world.

- Anticipating an imminent rise in gasoline prices, an unscheduled stop at the gas station seemed prudent. There is nothing for the participle anticipating to modify; an unscheduled stop cannot anticipate anything. One way of making this an acceptable sentence is to change the participial phrase into an adverb clause, as follows: Because he anticipated an imminent rise in gasoline prices, an unscheduled stop at the gas station seemed prudent.

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16. Not only participles (verbal adjectives) can dangle, but regular adjectives can as well. Check out this sentence:

- Unable to walk, they had to carry her into the house.

One wonders how they succeeded in carrying her into the house if they were unable to walk, but thatís what the sentence says they did. Like introductory participles, introductory adjectives modify the subject of the sentence. To bring grammar and intended meaning into harmony, we could go with Unable to walk, she had to be carried into the house.

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17. A word of caution: Some participles have taken on prepositional status and do not modify anything. Two such words are concerning and regarding. Examples:

- Concerning the issue of global warming, the accelerated melting of polar ice will cause the oceans to rise significantly. Concerning the issue of global warming is not an introductory participial phrase; therefore, it does not need to modify the subject of the sentence, the gerund melting

- The CEO refused to disclose details regarding the massive job cuts

Note that regarding is used as a participle in the following sentence: Regarding his job as untouchable and all others as expendable, the CEO announced today that another 1000 jobs would be eliminated.

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18. Nominative absolutes: Be careful not to repeat the noun or pronoun used in the absolute expression in the main part of the sentence. Here is an example of what not to do:

- The kitten having been lost, it was found the next day. Change to The kitten, having been lost, was found the next day.

- The kitten having been lost, we found it the next day. Change to The next day we found the kitten that had been lost.

How would you use the absolute expression the kitten having been lost in a sentence? Hereís one way (of many): The kitten having been lost, Annie was heartbroken and cried for hours. Kitten does not (and should not) appear in the main clause, either as a noun or a pronoun.

Use nominative absolutes in various places in sentences, not always first. Check out these sentences:

- (nominative absolute first) His unopened schoolbooks piled neatly on the table in the corner, the usually industrious Daniel spent the entire evening munching on snack food and playing video games.

- (nominative absolute after the subject) The usually industrious Daniel, his unopened schoolbooks piled neatly on the table in the corner, spent the entire evening munching on snack food and playing video games.

- (nominative absolute last) The usually industrious Daniel spent the entire evening munching on snack food and playing video games, his unopened school books piled neatly on the table in the corner.

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19. The participial phrases being that (Being that weíre all here, letís party.) and being as how (Being as how I donít have enough time now, Iíll cut the grass tomorrow.) are considered substandard.

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20. According to Fowler II, certain participles may be used as prepositions or as adverbs (adverbs has been changed, correctly in my opinion, to subordinating conjunctions in Fowler III). Among these participles are speaking (in the expression speaking of), given, granted, assuming, barring (when used to mean "except for"), considering, judging, failing (in the sense of "in the absence of"), excepting, and owing (when followed by to). Take a look at the following sentences and see if you find them acceptable:

- Barring a thunderstorm, the race will begin on time.

- Failing her expertise, we cannot proceed.

- Speaking of prepositions, how many are there?

- Considering her love of warm temperatures and low humidity, Arizona may be the right place for her.

- Given these facts, the choice is simple.

- Assuming that all goes well on Monday, the presidency will be hers on Tuesday.

- Judging from his strength in the primaries, he will be hard to stop.

- Granted that standards have changed, such actions are still beyond the pale of respectability.

I agree that the participles in these sentences do not have to modify the subject of the sentence; however, I do not go along with R. W. Burchfield, the editor of Fowler III, when he exempts the participle knowing as well. Burchfield finds the sentence Knowing my mother, this is her way of punishing us acceptable. I do not. I prefer a sentence like this: Knowing my mother, I can assure you that this is her way of punishing us, in which the participle knowing modifies the subject I. Our language is constantly changing. The best we can do is try to assess the current status of particular points of grammar. How are the majority of scholars, editors, and other erudite individuals speaking and writing? It is these people, not grammarians alone, who determine correct grammar. For that matter, it is these same people, not lexicographers alone, who determine the meanings and acceptability of words.

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21. Very by itself doesnít make sense with past participles. Since we donít say I loved him very, we also shouldnít say He was very loved. It does make sense to say He was much loved or He was very much loved. Since we donít say I appreciated it very, we also shouldnít say It was very appreciated. We can say It was much appreciated or It was very much appreciated. Very is an acceptable modifier of a word that has lost its participial force and become a simple adjective, such as interested. They were very interested is correct; they were much interested is not. A gray area does exist here.

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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