How to Fix Misplaced Participial Phrases
What is a participial phrase?
Don't let the title overwhelm you. If you write, you are probably using participial phrases already without realizing it. In the excitement of expressing yourself, sometimes these phrases get misplaced; instead of being next to the noun to be modified, the phrase accidentally gets placed next to a different noun in the sentence. These misplaced phrases can make the sentence awkward or confusing.
To improve your writing, you can learn to identify these types of phrases and correct them when they are out of place. The following video defines and identifies participial phrases.
Author's notes: The heading on the video that reads "participle phrases" is actually incorrect. The word "participle" is a noun form; participial is the adjective for "phrase." The instructor corrects the spelling in the video.
Although the participle can be either in the present -ing form or the past -ed form, this article deals primarily with the present -ing form, as this is the one that seems to be the most commonly misplaced.
Examples of Misplaced Participial Phrases
Sentence: The kitten pawed at the string, mewing as it played.
Participial phrase: mewing as it played
Correct: The kitten, mewing as it played, pawed at the string.
Also acceptable: Mewing as it played, the kitten pawed at the string.
Sentence: The boy headed for the park, knowing full well he'd be late for school.
Participial phrase: knowing full well he'd be late for school
Correct: The boy, knowing full well he'd be late for school, headed for the park.
Also acceptable: Knowing full well he'd be late for school, the boy headed for the park.
Sentence: The wind nearly swept the girl off her feet, blowing wildly.
Participial phrase: blowing wildly
Correct: The wind, blowing wildly, nearly swept the girl off her feet.
Also acceptable: Blowing wildly, the wind nearly swept the girl off her feet.
Acceptable verb order change: The wind blew wildly, nearly sweeping the girl off her feet.
Discussion: Here the verb "sweep" has been changed to a participle, while "blew" becomes the main verb. It is acceptable to have a participial phrase following the verb, as long as no other nouns or pronouns stand in the way. "Wildly" and "nearly" are adverbs and do not interfere with what the participial phrase modifies.
Do you see how the participial phrase belongs with the noun being modified? Obviously the string doesn't mew, the park doesn't know, and the feet don't blow. Do you see how the corrections make the meaning clearer?
All right, you might be saying, but perhaps you don't like the way the corrected sentences sound. Maybe the verb-other syntax at the end of the sentence is too pedantic. In that case, you don't have to use the verb form as a participle.
Changing the Participle: Conjunction and Verb
Other than reordering the participial phrase in the sentence, you can change the verb form to a non-participial function. Here are the same sentences with a conjunction and past tense verb.
Sentence: The kitten pawed at the string and mewed as it played.
Discussion: The conjunction "and" was inserted, and "mewing" was changed to "mewed."
Sentence: The boy headed for the park, although he knew full well he'd be late for school.
Discussion: The conjunction "although" was inserted, and "knowing" was changed to "knew."
Sentence: The wind nearly swept the girl off her feet and blew wildly.
Discussion: The conjunction "and" has been inserted and "blowing" has been changed to "blew." The sentence, while grammatically acceptable, can still be improved by reordering the words.
Rewrite (better): The wind blew wildly and nearly swept the girl off her feet.
Discussion: The wind has to blow first in order to nearly sweep the girl off her feet. The revision makes chronological sense while preserving the meaning of the original sentence.
but, but also
neither - nor
as, as if
either - or
so, so that
as long as
if, in order that
Changing the Participle: Infinitive and Present Verb
Sentence: To mew was something the kitten did while playing with the string.
Discussion: The infinitive form is created by adding the preposition "to" and changing the participle "mewing" to the simple present verb tense "mew."
Sentence: Although he seemed to know full well that he would be late for school, the boy headed for the park.
Discussion: The infinitive form "to know" is used here as part of an introductory clause.
Sentence: As the wind began to blow wildly, the girl was nearly swept off her feet.
Discussion: The infinitive "to blow" now functions as part of the introductory clause. While "blow" is a present tense form, the main verbs "began" and "was" are past tense.
Participial Phrases: Cliches to Avoid
- throwing (carrying) one's (his, my, etc.) weight
- rearing an ugly head
- beating around the bush
- sticking out (risking) one's (his, my, etc.) neck
- burning one's (his, my, etc.) bridges
- working like a dog
- fighting a losing battle
- planting the seed
- grinding one's (his, my, etc.) axe
The above phrases can function in other ways beside that of a participle, but they are still cliches. If you want to be original, don't use them.
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Credits and Resources
Seranek, P., et al.; Write for College: A Student Handbook; Write Source (Houghton Mifflin), Wilmington, MA (1997) ISBN 0-69-44402-2
http://foundmediagroup.com/square-pegs-round-holes-dogs-dont-hunt-30000-foot-view/ (Image of Square Peg in Round Hole)
© 2014 Marie Flint