Author Topic: Doing battle with the tendency to misplace participial phrases  (Read 4588 times)

Joe Carillo

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Based on my experience as a copyeditor, I can say that easily the most serious weakness of nonnative English speakers writing in English is the tendency to misplace modifying phrases. This is true whether the writer I’m editing is an above-average student, a respected academic, an acclaimed or award-winning litterateur, or an experienced professional journalist. By the time I’m done editing their work, their digital manuscripts would often be literally bleeding with red lines or red text where I had crossed out misplaced, dangling, or squinting modifying phrases and had reconstructed entire sentences to get rid of them. Sadly, as can be seen in my weekly media English watch in this Forum, this grammar weakness is also shared in no small measure by some writers and editors of the major Philippine mass media outlets. And I would say that in most cases, the offending phrase in their narratives or expositions would be a participial phrase (definitely much more often than offending infinitive phrases and gerund phrases), thus giving me the distinct and uncomfortable feeling that the participial phrase is perhaps the least understood and most misused form of modifier in the English language. 

This was what I had mind when I wrote the two-part essay below, “Dealing better with participial phrases,” in my weekly English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2006. I am now posting it in the Forum to help the current generation of nonprofessional and professional writers understand why participial phrases are such slippery grammar elements to handle and how they can be effectively tamed and harnessed to produce more readable and persuasive English prose. (August 7, 2011)

Dealing better with participial phrases

Part I:

We already know that the participle is a verbal—a verb form that functions as another part of speech—that ends either in “–ing” or “–ed,” and that a participle that ends in “–ing” is a present participle (“dancing,” “remaining,” “piercing”) and one that typically ends in “–ed” is a past participle (“stalled,” “walled,” “detested”).

In both cases, the participle functions as an adjective modifying a noun, as in the following sentences: “The dancing partners impressed the audience.” “The stalled car created a monumental traffic jam.” In the first sentence, the present participle “dancing” modifies the noun “partners”; in the second, the past participle “stalled” modifies the noun “car.”

Now, a participial phrase is simply a participle together with any words or phrases that modify it. These words or phrases can be in the form of a direct object or an indirect object of the participle, a prepositional phrase, or any complement of the action or state expressed in the participle. We have to keep in mind that a participial phrase, although functioning as an adjective, retains the intrinsic properties of its basic verb.

Here, for instance, is a participial phrase consisting of a present participle and the direct object of the action expressed in it: “Throwing all caution, the legislators attempted to turn themselves into a constituent assembly.” The participial phrase in that sentence, “throwing all caution,” consists of the participle “throwing” and its direct object “all caution.” Together, they serve as an adjective modifying the clause “the legislators attempted to turn themselves into a constituent assembly.”

Now here’s a participial phrase consisting of a present participle modified by a prepositional phrase: “The traffic officer caught the motorist speeding through a red light.” The participial phrase in that sentence, “speeding through a red light,” consists of the participle “speeding” and the prepositional phrase “through a red light.” Together, they serve as an adjective modifying the noun “motorist.”

And here’s a participial phrase consisting of a past participle and a prepositional phrase that modifies it: “Soldiers confined in the barracks too long become ineffective in war.” The participial phrase in that sentence, “confined in the barracks too long,” consists of the participle “confined” and the prepositional phrase “in the barracks too long.” Together, they serve as an adjective modifying the noun “soldiers.”

Because participial phrases are, in effect, many-worded adjectives serving as modifiers, we need to exercise caution when using them in sentences. There’s always the danger of misplacing them during construction, in which case they can end up modifying a wrong word, a wrong phrase, or a wrong clause or lead to a really bad dangle or tangle.

One handy rule for dealing with a participial phrase is to make sure that the noun or pronoun it is meant to modify is clearly stated, then to place that noun or pronoun as close as possible to it. When this rule is not observed, a dangling participial phrase is the result: “Parrying the blows of his opponent, his left leg got entangled on the ropes.” This is a logically problematic construction, for a leg doing the parrying of the blows is obviously an absurd idea!

To establish the doer of the action in such situations, we have to rely on context and logic. In this particular case, it is evident that the doer of the action is the noun “boxer.” We then have to specify that noun in the sentence and position it as close as possible to the participial phrase. One construction that meets this requirement—and thus prevents the participial phrase from dangling—is this: “Parrying the blows of his opponent, the boxer got his leg entangled on the ropes.” (Another dangle-free construction, of course, is this: “The boxer, parrying the blows of his opponent, got his leg entangled on the ropes.”) (December 11, 2006)

Part II:

In their role as many-worded modifiers, participial phrases enjoy some flexibility in positioning themselves in a sentence. They do their job best when placed as close as possible to the noun or pronoun they are meant to modify: “Tired after a long day’s work, the mechanic fell asleep in the bus.” They work equally well as interrupters in a sentence: “The mechanic, tired after a long day’s work, fell asleep in the bus.” Either way, the sentence functions without a hitch because “tired after a long day’s work” is positioned right beside the noun “mechanic.”

But the third possible position for that participial phrase—at the end of the sentence—doesn’t work: “The mechanic fell asleep in the bus, tired after a long day’s work.” This time, “tired after a long day’s work” is a dangler, absurdly modifying the noun “bus.”

In certain cases, though, a participial phrase can take an end-sentence position without dangling: “The policemen found the suspect shopping at the mall.” (Here, “shopping at the mall” modifies the noun “suspect,” not “policemen.”) “The lawyers glared at the witness, shocked by her self-incriminating testimony.” (Here, “shocked by her self-incriminating testimony” modifies “lawyers,” not “witness.”)

Such end-sentence placements should be approached with caution, however. In the second construction above, in particular, the participial phrase “shocked by his self-incriminating testimony” would have dangled without the pronoun “her”: “The lawyers glared at the witness, shocked by the self-incriminating testimony.” Now we can’t tell whether it was the witness or the lawyers who were shocked by the testimony! This is because semantically, the pronoun “her” is crucial to establishing “lawyers” as the subject being modified by that participial phrase.

At any rate, from a structural standpoint, we need to observe three general rules as to when we should set off a participial phrase with commas:

(1) when it’s positioned at the beginning of a sentence,
(2) when it interrupts a sentence as a nonessential modifier, and
(3) when it’s positioned at the end of a sentence and is separated from the word it modifies.

To correctly apply Rules 2 and 3, we need to clearly distinguish between nonessential modifiers and essential modifiers. Remember now that nonessential modifiers are those whose removal won’t profoundly alter the meaning of a sentence, while essential modifiers are those whose removal will do so.

In the following sentences, the participial phrases need to be set off by commas for the statements to make sense: “The cause-oriented groups, spoiling for a showdown with the government, held a massive protest rally.” “Alicia threw a tantrum, angered by the late arrival of her date.” As proof that the participial phrase in each of the two sentences above is not essential to the statement, we can safely drop it without seriously altering the meaning of the sentence: “The cause-oriented groups held a massive protest rally.” “Alicia threw a tantrum.”

In contrast, no commas are needed for the essential participial phrases in the following sentences: “A motorist driving with an expired driver’s license faces a heavy fine.” “The necklace bought by the society matron from a respectable jeweler turned out to have fake diamonds.” Dropping the participial phrase profoundly changes the meaning of each of the statements: “A motorist faces a heavy fine.” “The necklace turned out to have fake diamonds.”

Before bringing this discussion of participial phrases to a close, we need to be aware that certain expressions derived from such participles as “considering,” “concerning,” “granting,” “speaking,” and “judging” can validly modify a clause even if that clause doesn’t have a doer of the action conveyed by the participial phrase.

Just two examples: “Considering the bad weather, the open-air concert needs to be canceled.” “Judging by first appearances, she shouldn’t even be considered in cosmetics sales.”

Because they have evolved into prepositions through long usage, such actor-less participial phrases can do their modifying job without dangling. (December 18, 2006)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 11 and 18, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.