Participles are a part of English grammar that you're already using all the time without even knowing.
Read this article to learn what participles are, how to make them, and what you can use them for.
In short, a participle is a part of speech that looks like a verb but doesn't function as one. Participles can be used as:
This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.
Participles are part of a grammatical family called 'verbals.' The two other types of verbals are infinitives and gerunds. Verbals are words that look like a verb but don't function as one.
Participles either function as adjectives or, when paired with an auxiliary, the following verb tenses:
Auxiliary verbs are also known as helping verbs because they support other verbs. The primary auxiliary verbs are 'be,' 'do,' and 'have,' but there are others, too (known as modal auxiliary verbs).
Here are some examples of auxiliary verbs in a sentence. You'll see the auxiliary verb underlined and its supporting verb in bold.
I have been looking for you.
She said she didn't call me.
Before they could walk, they crawled.
There are special rules for forming participles, whether present or past. Read on to learn more.
You'll recognize the present participle as the continuous form of a verb. In other words, they always end in -ing.
Present participles can function as adjectives or are used for creating present, past, or future tenses.
Although a present participle always ends with -ing, it's still essential to review the rules for endings because, at times, you'll need to make a few adjustments to the word before adding the -ing.
Adjectives are words that complement a noun in a sentence. For example, in the following sentence, the adjective 'grey' complements the noun 'hair':
Alison loves her grey hair.
Thanks to present participles, we can give that adjective little life by adding an -ing.
Alison loves her greying hair.
What's different about that second sentence? While in the first sentence, Alison's hair is already grey, possibly as grey as it will get, Alison's hair is actively becoming grey in the second sentence. We can imagine that it is becoming a little more grey every day.
'Grey' and 'greying' are both adjectives, but by using the participle' greying,' which is a form of verbal, we give the word 'grey' a bit more of an active role. It makes sense if you remember that verbs are doing words.
Here are some more examples of participles used as adjectives. Note how the participle (underlined) complements the noun (in bold):
She gets so much joy from working on her growing business.
We had a fleeting romance.
He awoke Sleeping Beauty with a passionate kiss.
Of course I entered the painting competition!
Those moving targets are pretty tough to hit.
The going rate for a babysitter is $20/hour.
As I mentioned earlier, you can also use present participles to form tenses. For this, you need to combine them with an auxiliary verb. A present participle can never function as an active verb without an auxiliary verb.
You can form 6 tenses with the formula auxiliary + present participle. These are:
Here are some examples of sentences that contain each of these tenses. The present participle will be underlined. Notice how the present participle in the sentences always ends in -ing.
Let's start with the present progressive. To form this tense, you must use the formula am/is/are + present participle:
I am dyeing my shirt blue.
She is speaking to them on the phone.
We are hosting a workshop.
The present perfect progressive is formed using the formula have/has + been + present participle.
I have been telling you this all along.
He has been walking all day.
They have been coming to this class for over a year.
The past progressive is formed using the formula was/were + present participle:
I was thinking of you when you called.
It was raining on Wednesday.
They were at the aquarium, looking at exotic fish.
To form the past perfect progressive, you would use the formula had + been + present participle:
I had been reading a book when I fell asleep.
Everything had been running smoothly before the new manager came along.
They had been acting for 15 years before they got that role.
To form the future progressive, you'll need to use will be + present participle:
I will be sleeping when you get home, so please be quiet.
He will be jumping for joy when he finds out.
They will be celebrating tonight.
Finally, the future perfect progressive uses the formula will have been + present participle:
I will have been working here for ten years on Thursday.
At 3 pm, Sally will have been waiting for an hour.
They will have been dating for five months this time next week.
Like the present participle, the past participle can make adjectives or verb tenses.
Regular verbs are straightforward: simply add –ed to the end of the infinitive. For example:
There are a few special rules, like for present participles. Those rules are as follows.
And then there are irregular verbs. These are the ones that can trip you up with past participles. They don't make logical sense; you just have to memorize them. Some examples of irregular verbs and their past participle include:
Just like present participles, past participles can take on the role of an adjective in a sentence. Look at the following examples and note how the past participle (underlined) adds a quality to the noun (in bold).
I returned home to a tired husband.
The lost keys suddenly turned up in my pocket.
She presented me with a basket of baked goods.
There's no use crying over spilled milk.
I love spoken word poetry.
It would be best if you got that torn jacket fixed.
The past participle is also used for speaking in the passive voice. You can see an example of that in the sentence you just read. It's a passive sentence since "past participle" is an object. 'Used' is the past participle of the verb' use.'
Here are more examples of sentences in the passive voice. Notice the presence of a past participle in each of them (underlined):
She was due to be picked up by her uncle at 2 pm.
I can't believe my phone got stolen again.
He thinks he's been allocated to the wrong project.
My son asked me how babies get made yesterday.
All the necessary work has been carried out.
The topic has yet to be brought up.
A phrase is a group of words that forms a grammatical unit but not a complete idea. Phrases don't make sense alone; they add value to a sentence.
In English, you'll come across adjective phrases, noun phrases, prepositional phrases, and many more. And the participial phrase falls under this same category.
A participial phrase is a group of words that contain a participle. It is sometimes separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma.
To spot the participial phrase, start by looking for the participle, then all the words that the participle modifies, and you'll have your participial phrase. For example:
Always a fan of dancing to live music, Sally gratefully accepted the free tickets.
Here, dancing is a present participle, and the rest of the words that relate to dancing come together to form the participial phrase. You'll see the entire phrase underlined.
Let's have a look at some more examples:
Fumbling around in the dark, I struggled to find the light switch.
Startled by my presence, my mum let out a shriek.
Flying through turbulence, the plane started shaking.
Skipping through green fields, I felt intense joy.
In the above examples, the participial phrase is separated from the rest of a sentence with a comma. This shows that they aren't essential to the meaning of the sentence. They have value, nonetheless, as they add information to help the reader or listener know more about the context.
When a participial phrase isn't separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma, removing it will alter the meaning of the sentence (or render it nonsensical). Let's see some examples of these kinds of phrases:
The girl riding the red bike is my daughter.
I'll be the one wearing the black jumper.
When forming a participial phrase, it's important to place the punctuation accurately and ensure the parts of a sentence are in the right spot to avoid a misunderstanding.
Whichever noun your participle is modifying must be placed directly after the participial phrase. If it isn't, it's called a dangling participle. Here's an example of a dangling participle:
Walking up the mountain, many trees were in sight.
Because "many trees" comes right after the participial phrase, it sounds like the trees were walking up the mountain. A better way to say this would be:
Walking up the mountain, we saw many trees.
Here, the subject "we" comes right after the participial phrase, telling the reader that it was "we" who walked up the mountain, not "the trees."
Let's have a look at some more examples of dangling modifiers:
Slipping on the wet floor, my phone fell out of my hands.
Should be → Slipping on the wet floor, I dropped my phone.
Looking up into the sky, the sun shone brightly.
Should be → Looking up into the sky, I was blinded by the sun.
Let's summarize what we've learned about participles in this article.
I hope you have found this article helpful in understanding the role participles play in speech and how you can use them to be better understood.
For more grammar lessons, check out our free online grammar book.