Let’s Talk Sentences (Part Three)

By Karen Payton Holt.

We covered comma splices, conjunctions, and sentence fragments. Now, here’s an interesting question, ‘What on earth is a ‘participle‘?’

Answer: A participle modifies the noun in a sentence. Yes, I know, what does that mean? And more importantly, in terms of spotting errors, what is a DANGLING participle?

sel-edit-pencil-eraserHere goes, let’s see if I can help you out here; Firstly, participles come in two forms: present and past. You okay with that? Yes? Well, let’s see what that means.

Generally, ‘present’ participles end in -ing (carrying, sharing, tapping), and ‘past’ participles of regular verbs end in -ed (carried, shared, tapped).

But here’s the thing, it’s common for both present AND past participles to be used in complex tenses and they can be used to refer to past, present, or future time. Okay, don’t run away just yet, stay with me…

The ‘present’ participle is fairly simple to explain.

Definition: A verb form created by adding -ing to the base form — that functions as an adjective.

The ‘past’ participle is more complex.

Definition: A verb form created by adding -ed, -d, or -t to the base form of a regular verb. (The past participle forms of regular verbs such as looked, worked, and wished are identical to the past tense.)

Something to note here: The ‘past’ participle ‘ED’ ending is a variant, although the effect is the same. For example: present/past – taking/taken, shaking/shook, walking/walked, sleeping/slept.

A ‘past’ participle is also a form of a verb that can function independently as (a) an adjective or as (b) an ‘auxiliary’ verb

For example, past participle, BAKED.
a) an adjective: “We had some baked beans.”
b) auxiliary verb in a passive sentence: The beans were baked too long.

Readers will ordinarily associate a participle with the noun, noun phrase, or pronoun adjacent to it, and using it in the wrong place can cause confusion. Yup, more gobbledygook, but here goes…

Consider this, ‘The man took the dog for a walk wearing his new coat.’ Who is wearing the coat?The dog is the closest noun, so we are likely to thing ‘the dog’ is wearing the coat, and let’s face it, it could be. 

If I switch that around a little to ‘Wearing his new coat, the man took the dog for a walk’, I think you’ll agree, the man is now wearing the coat.

So you see, where you put the participle makes a difference. The results can be amusing, too. ‘She watched him running the race, wearing her best dress.’

Dangling Participles.

Why are they called ‘dangling’? Because the sentence is missing the ‘subject’ it intends to modify. And again, you’re thinking, ‘What?’ I know I would be.

Here’s an example:

1/ Looking up into the dark skies, stars twinkled overhead. — Here ‘the stars are looking’. The dangling participle is missing the ‘subject’ it needs to modify. Solution? Add the correct subject:

   Looking up into the dark skies, I watched the stars twinkling overhead.

2/ Working every minute of the day, the order made it out on time. — Here ‘the order is working every minute. Solution? Rework the sentence:

Working every minute of the day, he got the order out on time.


   Because he worked every minute of the day, the order made it out on time.

Okay, here endeth the lesson. It wasn’t too bad after all, was it? The bottom line is, I fear, don’t leave your participles dangling!


As a closing thought, when writing action scenes, I find it helps think about the MAIN action, and the ORDER of events.

For example, consider these combinations and how the emphasis might effect the sentence you construct;

‘He walked while talking’ versus ‘while walking, he talked’.

‘He talked while walking’ versus ‘while talking, he walked’.

I’ve pulled out some action examples from my last piece posted on WC : Reap What You Sow. I do hope they are helpful.

1/ Letting him drop back to onto the ground, straightening up, I pulled a knife from my back pocket. The snick of the blade brushing the steel sheath made me hold my breath.

2/ I dropped to one knee and pulled on the neck of his shirt until it tore, exposing the clean skin beneath.

3/ Gouging the tip of the blade into his heaving chest, I took my figurative ‘pound of flesh’.

4/ The tent was illuminated by the full moon as though the force residing beneath the canvas shell drew the light from the sky.

In action terms, it’s about varying the sentence structure because, ‘predictable’ = ‘boring’ = ‘speed reading‘.

Just to show you, here, tweaking sentences can make them ‘feel’ different:

a) Walking away towards the distant carnival attractions, I yanked leather gloves from the back pocket of my pants.

b) Yanking leather gloves from the back pocket of my pants, I walked away towards the distant carnival attractions.


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