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Death by Participial Phrases -- by Douglas Phillips

Death by Participial Phrases

(Part 2 of -ing verbs. See Part 1 here.)

Hoping for the best, Jeremy cinched the rope around his waist. Spreading the bedsheet behind, he was suddenly doubtful this crazy plan would work. A thousand-foot drop awaited, taunting him. The river glistened, calling him. Stepping to the edge, he tightened his boot laces. He summoned his courage, leaping. Cold wind roared in his ears, freezing his cheeks. The makeshift parachute fluttered, collapsing. Cartwheeling down, splintering tree limbs, and slamming rocks, it was death by participial phrases.

Plenty of action, a rich vocabulary, but it’s still not particularly good writing. What’s wrong with it? And what is a participial phrase?

Participial phrases come in two forms: the present participle (Crouching beneath the tree, Terry waited.) and the past participle (Crouched beneath the tree, Terry waited.). A participial phrase is set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma and contains a secondary verb that modifies the main verb or subject of the sentence. The phrase can appear at the beginning (Hoping for the best, Jeremy cinched…) or the end (The river glistened, calling  him.) or even in the middle (The dancer, pausing her pirouette, caught Elaine’s attention.) In every case, these sentences describe multiple events that are happening simultaneously (or nearly so) or describe a single event in multiple ways. Done well, multiple events become a seamless combination. Great for action stories!

In the hands of a skilled author, participial phrases can be elegant:

  • Their breath froze in the air as it left their mouths, spouting forth in spumes of vapor that settled upon the hair of their bodies and formed into crystals of frost. (Jack London, White Fang)
  • That's how I feel now, trying to remember how to breathe, totally stunned as the name bounces around the inside of my skull. (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games). Notice how Collins strings both the present participle (trying) and the past participle (stunned) into two phrases, both of which modify the main sentence subject-verb (I feel).

Participial phrases are also a great tool to avoid overuse of the past progressive tense (see my previous blog):

  • Past progressive: I was bouncing in my seat. I was hoping the turbulence would end.
  • Participial phrase: Bouncing in my seat, I hoped the turbulence would end.

Participial phrases can improve writing, but as my opening example shows, they can also make it worse. What might go wrong with these phrases, and how can you fix it? Three things:

  1. Overuse produces an irritating rhythm. Sentence after sentence, each beginning or ending with a participial phrase can produce a cadence that is sing-song or down-right irritating! If you see multiple sentences in the same paragraph starting or ending with a participial phrase, find alternatives. Reword. Break sentences apart or insert then to indicate sequence.

    Instead of: Hearing the door open, I hid. Peering over the blanket, I recognized his face. Spotting me, he grinned.
    Try variation: The door creaked open. I hid, then peered over the blanket. His face was familiar. Spotting me, he grinned.
  2. Impossible actions. The participial phrase implies that two actions are simultaneous (or nearly so) which can create impossible actions.

    Stepping to the edge, he tightened his boot laces.
    How does someone tighten their boot laces while stepping to the edge? Wouldn’t they trip?

    He lifted her off the ground, waving to her father.
    Does he have three arms?
  3. Weakened verbs. When a participle verb appears in a phrase, it is subsidiary to the main verb. This may be exactly what you want but beware of burying the real action.

    Squeezing the trigger, he fired.
    In this case, fired is the primary action, squeezing is secondary. Perfect.

    He summoned his courage, leaping.
    Leaping seems almost an afterthought, but it’s the more significant action of the sentence. What if this is turned around? Summoning his courage, he leaped. Or eliminate the participial phrase altogether. He summoned his courage, then leaped.

A fun exercise is to search your writing for ing. While you’ll find nouns like ring or spring, and gerunds like writing, you’ll also find cases of the past progressive tense (I was eating) and present participial phrases - the most common type (Swallowing in one bite, I gagged.) For those who want to go full nerd, try these regular expressions in Microsoft Word’s Advanced Search (be sure to turn on Wild Cards first).

To find present participial phrases that begin a sentence:
[A-Z][a-z]{1}ing[’ A-z]{1,50},
                  ^ iterate 1 thru 10 to find all the -ing verbs*

To find present participial phrases that end a sentence:
, [a-z]{2}ing[’ A-z]{1,50}.
           ^ iterate 2 thru 11 to find all the -ing verbs*

* Both searches should work in a single step, using [A-Z][a-z]{1,10}ing[’ A-z]{1,50}, and , [a-z]{2,11}ing[’ A-z]{1,50}.  Unfortunately, there’s a bug in Microsoft Word that causes these legitimate search expressions to fail. I’ve notified Microsoft. So far, no answer. Until then, use the iterations above.

Posted by Douglas Phillips 30 Jul at 02:56
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Responses to this blog

Onalimb 30 Jul at 10:18  
Great blog—and yes. yes, yes!

I'm going to bookmark this. In future, instead of trying to explain, I'm just going to point my crit here.
Jerseygirl 30 Jul at 18:57  
Wait, what?

"That's how I feel now, trying to remember how to breathe, totally stunned as the name bounces around the inside of my skull." (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games).

Notice how Collins strings both the present participle (trying) and the past participle (stunned) into two phrases, both of which modify the main sentence subject-verb (I feel)

I got this far and no further. Stunned is an adjective. It modifies the pronoun I. According to you, the present participle there would be "stunning". Um, no.
Jerseygirl 30 Jul at 19:09  
Let me correct myself. Stunned modifies the pronoun/verb I (am). Just because the verb "to be" isn't there doesn't mean it isn't there.
Dougp 31 Jul at 01:38  
Right you are, Jerseygirl, trying to remember... is the only participial phrase in that example. Good catch.
Brobertson 1 Aug at 13:15  
Very helpful; thank you for posting this!
Redredrose 1 Aug at 17:26  
Very helpful. Thanks for the blog.
'He picks up the shot glass that he is currently dating...' from The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon.

Rellrod 1 Aug at 18:22  
Well (to be totally pedantic), "stunned" is in fact the past participle of "stun", functioning as an adjective — but it's true that it isn't a participial phrase (unless you count "totally," which goes along with "stunned" as a modifying adverb).

Great post, Douglas, and a great example of how useful the technical language of the art can be in helping us understand what the words are actually doing.

Miezko 2 Aug at 11:34  
Overuse is true for any technique. It makes it boring and predictable.
Miezko 2 Aug at 11:50  
stun verb
past tense: stunned; PAST PARTICIPLE: STUNNED
knock unconscious or into a dazed or semiconscious state.
"the man was stunned by a blow to the head"
astonish or shock (someone) so that they are temporarily unable to react.
"the community was stunned by the tragedy

The author of the blog has it correct. Stunned can be an adjective as well, but that is not how it is being used in the sentence.

Adjectives, unlike adverbs, which often seem capable of popping up almost anywhere in a sentence, nearly always appear immediately before the noun or noun phrase that they modify.

The closest noun after stunned in the sentence is name. Is stunned modifying the noun name? Nope.

The exception is indefinite pronouns — such as something, someone, anybody — but I is not such a noun.
Miezko 2 Aug at 11:56  
And totally is an adverb, not an adjective. We can tell this because it ends in ly, think of that as a hint. Most words that and in ly will be adverbs.
It modifies stunned.
Jerseygirl 2 Aug at 13:07  
"Go ahead," they said. "Writing a blog will be fun," they said. Nobody told you about the hairsplitters among us, though, did they, Douglas? All in good fun, I hope and your point is well taken. Thanks!

Rellrod 2 Aug at 16:52  
lol . . . Yes — it's an excellent post, regardless of us persnickety pedants.

S_rogers71 4 Aug at 03:21  
Thank you for this explanation, it is incredibly helpful.
Articlequr 5 Aug at 05:13  

Dougp 5 Aug at 17:24  
It's my fifth blog at CC, and I'm getting used to the hairsplitters.
Moffattd1 3 Sep at 02:18  
I like your attitude, Dougp. Great post. Thanks for contributing.

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