That Pesky Participle


That Pesky Participle

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By Margie Wakeman Wells

A participle is the “-ing” or “-ed” (which might be irregular) form of the verb that is being used as an adjective. Because it comes from a verb, the participle represents an action or a condition. The word the participle modifies is always doing that action or is in that condition.

Often the participle comes right in front of the noun that it modifies.

…frustrated actor…
…baked goods…
…frozen lake…

…singing nun…
…entertaining play…
…coming event…

When it comes in places other than that direct adjective position, it might need punctuation.

If it comes out in front of the sentence, it ALWAYS needs a comma after it whether it is one word or five words or the lead word in a participial phrase.

…Doubting the authenticity of the article, I did some research.
…Encouraged, he delved into further research.
…Sitting on the sidelines, she was disappointed in the team’s performance.

AND the introductory participle, used correctly, always modifies the subject of the sentence. The subject of the sentence is always doing the action or is in the condition represented by the participle. In the examples above, “I” am doing the “doubting”; “he” is the one who is “encouraged”; “she” is the one “sitting” on the sidelines.

As a side note to all this, when the subject isn’t doing the action represented by the participle, we call it a “dangling participle.”

…Attending the wedding, it was obvious how expensive it was. 🙁
…Having written the letter, it really made me feel better. 🙁

[As today, March 4, is National Grammar Day, it is fitting that we look at this grammar error.]

When the participle follows the word it modifies, the comma is based on whether it is essential and defines the word or whether it is nonessential because the word is already defined.

…the attorney representing the plaintiff…
…Mr. Jones, representing the plaintiff…

…the man driving the Honda…
…John Jones, driving the Honda…

…the politician talking about climate change…
…Mary Smith, talking about climate change…

In each case, no comma is needed when the noun being modified needs to be identified, defined. A comma is needed if the noun is already defined — proper names define us.

When the participle is down the line in the sentence, it most often is preceded by a comma though it is necessary to look at specific instances of this use. Here are some examples where the punctuation is not in question. The commas are necessary.

…I talked with the man in the red car, asking about his injuries.
“Asking” modifies “I.”

…An employee of the company in question, talking on his phone, was identified later that day as the suspect.
“Talking” modifies “employee.”

This gives you a starting point to be able to identify participles and decide what to do with them in terms of punctuation.

Happy punctuating!

Margie Wakeman Wells is a lifetime credentialed teacher in the state of California and is certified as a CRI. She is in her sixth decade of teaching – with more than 40 of those years in the field of court reporting. She is the author of Court Reporting: Bad Grammar/Good Punctuation and has presented, under the auspices of NCRA and state court reporting organizations, over 300 seminars for reporters on English-related topics as well as seminars for teachers and students

This article was originally posted at and is shared here with full permission from the author.

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