Fundamentals: Participial Phrases

Misuse of present participial phrases (PPP) may be the most common beginner writer problem that we see in our critiques. They can make your writing seem amateur at best, or at worst, nonsensical. To become skilled writers, we must understand what PPPs are, when to use them, and how to use them.

What is a present participial phrase?

A present participial phrase is, essentially, when a phrase is tacked on to a core sentence, and that phrase contains the present participle form of a verb (usually a verb ending with “-ing”). Example:

Pablo smelled the roses, savoring the scent.

The first part before the comma is the core sentence: subject (Pablo) does verb (smelled) to an object (the roses).

The second part is the present participial phrase: verb-ing (savoring) the object (the scent).

The key thing to understand about a present participial phrase: when we use one, it means the two linked events (smelling and savoring) are happening at the exact same time.

In Pablo’s case, we have no problem. We can smell flowers and savor them at the same time. It’s a good use of the present participle.

Some examples

Here’s a misused present participial phrase:

Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room, dropping her glass of milk.

This may seem okay on the surface since these two things could happen simultaneously. The first problem is that the participle verb (dropping) is very far away from the noun it modifies (Millicent). This is called a “dangling” or “misplaced” modifier.  The second problem is that it feels amateurish because the cause (window breaking) should come before the effect (dropping milk). Let’s fix it:

Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room and dropped her milk.
…or…
Glass broke in the living room and Granny Millicent dropped her milk.

How about this one?

Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver, fumbling with the ammo as she loaded it.

This has a clear cause-and-effect issue: she can’t simultaneously rummage for the gun and load it. How can she load it if she hasn’t found it yet? It’s also a bit bland because it summarizes instead of dramatizes. Let’s fix it:

Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver. Her hand touched cold steel. She found the ammo box and began to load it, fumbling with the bullets as someone began to pound on her front door.

That’s better. Note that in the second sentence, we have three things happening simultaneously (loading, fumbling, pounding on the door) but we have correctly used the present participial phrases to communicate to the reader what is happening and in what chronological order.

Let’s try another one:

Running into the living room, Granny Millicent shot the intruder dead, sweating profusely as she did so.

Here we have another misused present participial phrase and some pretty amateurish writing (the two tend to go hand in hand). I have a hard time picturing a sweating granny shooting someone dead while she’s running through the house. Three things are happening at once, and it seems a bit silly. Let’s take another shot at it:

Granny Millicent lifted the revolver with both hands. Her arms shook from the weight of it as she stepped softly through the kitchen in her bunny slippers. Her hair curlers were soaked in sweat and sliding down her neck. The first shot had to kill—there was no way she’d be able to hold her grip on the pistol after it fired. The front door opened and she squeezed the trigger.

Now that’s better. We fixed the participial phrase problem, we’re showing the action instead of telling it, and we got rid of that cliche “sweating profusely” and that unnecessary filler “as she did so”. Note that the order of events is clear and logical, even though we used participial phrases.

In general, overuse of the present participles (-ing) verbs is a hallmark of amateur writing, and many editors will scrub them out of your manuscripts, sometimes to the point of removing them entirely. If you learn how to use them correctly, you can save them for when you actually need them: when two things happen at exactly the same time.

Click here for more examples.