Ask the Editor: What’s the deal with participial phrases, and how should they be used in fiction?Posted on Mar 8, 2012 | 4 comments
This is a column by Novel Publicity’s Editorial Lead, Kira McFadden
Kira answers: For those not familiar with the term, participle phrases are modifiers of nouns and pronouns. They don’t function like other modifiers, though, and are longer than one word.
Here are a few examples of participle phrases:
- Running down the street, Roxanne thought back to when she was a child.
- Alan, shocked by his mother’s outrageous words, decided to let her calm down.
- The man, hoping he wouldn’t have to commit a crime, drove forth on his search for cash.
- The man drove forth on his search for cash, hoping he wouldn’t have to commit a crime.
These phrases either contain a past or present participle. “Running down the street” is a present participle and is ongoing. It shows the reader what Roxanne is doing as she thinks. Alan being “shocked by his mother’s outrageous words,” is a past participle, or something that has already happened and is concluded. Keep in mind that participle phrases can use both past and present participles, or just one of each.
To answer Terry’s question, yes, participle phrases are an acceptable technique in fiction. With that in mind, they are not always used correctly. More often than not, I receive works with dangling modifiers. Dangling modifiers are participle phrases where the noun or pronoun they modify isn’t the correct one, and often, the sentences don’t make sense. When writing with a participle phrase, you want the phrase to modify the subject of the sentence, but in a dangling modifier, that doesn’t happen. Sentences that have dangling modifiers are incorrect in construction.
- Flapping its wings, the fluttering feathers felled the bird.
- Dropping the can, the teenager’s shirt dribbled soda.
In the first example, the bird should be the subject. However, the feathers take the place of the bird. So, rewrite the sentence as: Flapping its wings, the bird fell.
The teenager’s shirt was what dropped the can in this version of the sentence. That sounds a little silly, and more than likely, the author meant that the teenager dropped the can and got it on her shirt. So try writing it like: Dropping the can, the teenager got soda on her shirt. Even here, be careful. You’ve just introduced an infinite verb. That means that throughout the scene, the can is being dropped. It would be better written as: The teenager dropped the can, splashing soda on her shirt.
Note that it can be easy to slip into passive voice when using participle phrases.
- Jumping and begging, growling noises were made by the dog.
This says the growling noises were jumping and begging. Correct this by writing: Jumping and begging, the dog growled.
Participle phrases can go either at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence. Just make sure you separate them from the main clause of the sentence with a comma. Two rules to keep in mind: a participle phrase does not need a comma if the phrase comes at the end of the sentence and comes directly after the noun it modifies; or the phrase is restrictive (The praying woman was really pretty.).
- If the participle phrase comes before the main clause, a comma must come after the participle phrase.
- If the participle phrase comes in the middle of the sentence, two commas are required—one before the phrase and one after it.
- If the participle phrase comes after the main clause, the comma must come before the participle phrase.
NOTE: Placing the participle phrase near the noun or pronoun they modify clarifies the phrase and strengthens the sentence’s impact.
Here are some examples of past participle phrases in the three formats: before, in the middle, and after the main clause.
- Enraged by the ruling, James launched into a frenzied argument.
- James, enraged by the ruling, launched into a frenzied argument.
- James launched into a frenzied argument, enraged by the ruling.
Participle phrases can also modify a noun other than the subject.
- John jumped over the girl shouting angrily.
Here, because there is no comma between “girl” and “shouting,” the participle phrase is referring to the girl, not John. If you add a comma before the participle phrase, then it means John was shouting angrily. There is often quite a bit of confusion here, so make sure your participle phrase acts on the subject you want it to.
Keep in mind that the timing of events can become muddled when using participle phrases as well. For example, a character will do two things at once when it does not make sense for him or her to do so.
- Flying across the valley, the bird landed.
Here, we have the bird both flying and landing, which cannot be done at the same time. You can remedy this by writing:
- After flying across the valley, the bird landed.
This way, it makes sense and the two actions don’t occur simultaneously. You can also rewrite it as:
- The bird flew across the valley and landed.
To summarize, you can use participle phrases in fiction—both past and present. They vary sentence structure and can really add oomph when you need it. Just keep three things in mind when writing a participle phrase:
- Use commas to separate participle phrases from the main clause of the sentence.
- Make sure you have no dangling modifiers.
- Take care to note the timing of events. Ask yourself if your character can do both things at the same time. Flying and landing? No, probably not. Thinking and running? Yeah, that works fine.
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