Verbals are words derived from verbs that function as other parts of speech. We’ve already discussed one type of verbal: gerunds. Whereas gerunds can take the place of nouns, participles can fulfill the role of adjectives. Just like adjectives, participles modify nouns and pronouns, but they also imply some sort of action or state of being.

Present Participles

Present participles come from the progressive tense of a verb. They convey the sense that an action is ongoing. Also like progressive verbs, present participles always end in ing. However, they don’t include any auxiliary “to be” verbs. In fact, removing the “to be” from a progressive verb transforms it into a present participle:

Progressive verb: The weather is freezing.

Present participle: The freezing weather is uncomfortable.

Progressive verb: Those books are boring.

Present participle: Those boring books are forgettable.

Be careful that you don’t confuse present participles with gerunds, which are also derived from progressive verbs. The easiest way to tell whether an ing word is functioning as a present particle or a gerund is to remove the word and see if the sentence would still make sense without it. If the sentence still functions, it’s a present participle. If removing an ing word breaks a sentence, you’re dealing with a gerund. Here’s an example from the gerunds lesson:

Present Participle: Julie always tries to get out of her babysitting duties.

Gerund: Julie always tries to get out of babysitting.

If you remove the present participle babysitting from the first sentence, you still know that Julie is trying to get out of some sort of obligation. The second sentence no longer works if you remove babysitting because the gerund is the direct object. Participles, like adjectives, provide additional information. Gerunds fulfill essential noun roles.

Past Participles

As you might expect from their name, past participles convey the sense that an action has already taken place. Past particles end in ed, en, d, t, n, or ne. They come from the same simple past tense verbs used with “to be” in passive voice:

Passive voice: The assignment was completed by Steve.

Active voice: Steve completed the assignment.

Past participle: The completed assignment was important to Steve’s grade.

Passive voice: The documents were destroyed in a fire.             

Active voice: The fire destroyed the documents.

Part particle: The destroyed documents were impossible to replace.

Remember that passive voice is a tool of last resort. Only use it if you can’t think of another way to fix a more serious grammatical error. Past participles are great tools for adding variety to your writing while simultaneously avoiding passive voice.

Participle Phrases

You can also use past and present participles in phrases. Participle phrases consist of participles plus modifiers, direct objects, indirect objects, or complements of the action implied by the participle:

Present participle phrase: Waking early in the morning, Jim decided to go for a jog.

Past participle phrase: The assignment, completed by Steve, earned the team a high grade.

As you can see from these two examples, participle phrases should usually be off-set by commas. The only time you should not do this is if the participle phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence:

The associate selling the most service agreements will earn a bonus.

This sentence wouldn’t make much sense if we didn’t know what an associate has to do to earn a bonus. The lack of commas informs the reader that this participle phrase contains essential information.

Dangling Participles

Make sure you keep participles and participle phrases as close to the nouns they modify as possible, just like you would with “real” adjectives. Placing them too far apart results in the dreaded dangling participle:

Running through the forest, her jacket caught on a branch.

This sentence doesn’t work on either a grammatical or an intuitive level. It’s not clear who or what is performing the action expressed by the participle phrase. Even if you knew nothing about participles, you might suspect that something was “off” about it. After all, a jacket is an inanimate object; it can’t go for a run through the forest or anywhere else. This one is pretty easy to fix:

Running through the forest, she caught her jacket on a branch.

Adding the subject pronoun “she” immediately following the participle phrase removes any doubt who or what the participle is referring to. This sentence would work just as well if you swapped out “she” for any female or gender neutral noun (Marie, Joanne, the jogger, the camper, etc.)