Participial Phrases 101, Or The First Thing Your Editor Is Going To Yell At You About
That’s not true, by the way. All editors are angels.
So… a participial phrase. What is it? According to grammaruntied.com, it’s a word group consisting of a present participle (also known as an -ing form) or past participle (also known as an -en form), plus any modifiers, objects, and complements.
If you find the English class gibberish definition confusing, you’re not alone. Just as a picture is worth a 1000 words, an example the best way to explain a participial phrase.
Example (participial phrase underlined): Running down the street, Alice tripped and fell.
Just like every other writing “rule”, there is disagreement on if, how, when, and how often participial phrases should be used. However, there is one way they should never be used. That’s what this post is about: Using the participial phrase correctly.
When is it okay to begin a sentence with a participial phrase? When the sentence makes logical sense. The participial phrase construction implies that two events are taking place simultaneously.
Incorrect: “His car flew up the dirt road. He came to a stop in front of the first paddock, then opened the door and got out. Running around the side of the barn, he thrust the key into the padlock on the back door.”
The construction in the final sentence implies that the two actions—running and putting the key in the padlock—are happening at the same time. Physically impossible. Nor is it what the author intended to convey.
It might be better to say: “After running around the side of the barn, he thrust the key into the padlock.”
Or: “He ran around the side of the barn and thrust the key into the padlock.”
Still, the participial phrase has its good points. It avoids the repeated use of the personal pronoun. Most of the time, that’s why we use it at the beginning of a sentence—as a tool to break up monotonous narrative. Just pay attention that, when you do, your two actions are indeed occurring simultaneously.
A few grammar rule gurus tell us to avoid participial phrases altogether, which seems unduly rigid to me. As with most things, moderation is key. Treat participial phrases as you would adjectives. While editing, regard each with the utmost attention. Is this particular construction the best way to get the action across to the reader?
Sometimes, a better solution is not to describe a character’s every action. It’s okay to leave out certain details. The reader can and will fill in the blanks. So the original paragraph: “His car flew up the dirt road. He came to a stop in front of the first paddock, then opened the door and got out. Running around the side of the barn, he thrust the key into the padlock on the back door.” could be rewritten like this: “His car flew up the dirt road and stopped in front of the first paddock. He jumped out and ran to unlock the padlock on the barn’s back door.” The reader knows the character needs to open the door before getting out of the car. You don’t need to tell him. Less is more.
Why is all of this a big deal? Because starting a sentence with a present participial phrase has a huge potential for misuse. Writers often use this construction as an alternative to “She did this, then she did that.”
Example: “Stalking into the bar, she flung her coat onto the stool and grabbed her husband’s elbow.”
She probably didn’t do those things while she was walking into the bar. But that’s what the sentence construction implies. Here’s a simple way to test your writing. If you can’t put a 'while' or an 'as' into the sentence without changing the meaning, then a participial phrase is probably not a good choice.
To recap (yes, I’m finally done), a present participle usually implies an action that is occurring at the same time as the next action in the sentence. If the actions can't occur simultaneously, it’s best to find another way to express the sequence of events.
This concludes today’s boring as all get out grammar post. If you stuck around until the end, treat yourself to a cookie.