Improve your writing: What are participle phrases? (with practice exercises)


Can you write this sentence in a shorter way?


There were several people who were arguing about gas prices.


If you said "There were several people arguing about gas prices," you are right. What did you just do? You took a relative clause (who were arguing about gas prices) and turned it into a participle phrase (arguing about gas prices). Congratulations! You know how to use participle phrases!


But wait...


What are participle phrases, and more importantly, why do we use them? In short, participle phrases are reduced forms of relative (aka adjective) clauses and adverb clauses. They give us more information about something or someone while adding economy and variety to our writing. They are used in a variety of writing mediums, including news articles, novels, and academic texts, meaning they are indispensable in professional contexts. This article defines, explores, and gives examples of participle phrases.


Here we go.


What is the function of a participle phrase?

To give us more information about something or someone, and to do it in a more economical way than using relative clauses or adverb clauses.


Relative clauses and adverb clauses?...

Yes. Participle phrases are shortened versions of relative (aka adjective) clauses and adverb clauses (typically of time or reason). For example:


The person who was guarding the door fell asleep. (defining relative clause)

The person guarding the door fell asleep. (participle phrase)


Because the company wanted to reduce costs, they let go of 200 employees.

Wanting to reduce costs, the company let go of 200 employees.


How do you begin a participle phrase?

Participle phrases begin with a past or present participle. For example: taken from the drawer, living in Guyana, expecting a favourable response, loved by all.


Do participle phrases affect tense?

No. You can use a past or present participle phrase in any tense. Note the examples:


The company, founded in 1925, has had seven different CEOs. (The company, which was founded...)

Nurses hoping to get a raise will have to wait a little longer. (Nurses who hope...)

How do I know whether I should use a past or present participle phrase?

The vast majority of the time, if the phrase is active, use a present participle (verb+ing). If the phrase is passive, use a past participle. Take a look:


We saw a man dancing on the sidewalk. (active. The man was dancing on the sidewalk.)

I've read several books written by Neil Gaiman. (passive. The books were written by Neil Gaiman.)


Do participle phrases work in all contexts?

No. There are some situations where it is better to keep the full relative clause for clarity, or to keep the full adverb clause for the same reason. Who or what the phrase refers to must be crystal clear. If it is not, there can be confusion. Specifically, participle phrases often do not work as well when there are multiple subjects in a sentence. For example:


I picked up the ring, which shone brilliantly in the sun. (non-defining relative clause)

I picked up the ring, shining brilliantly in the sun. (Did the ring shine brilliantly, or did I shine brilliantly?)


Because we knew each other well, Kendra trusted me. (adverb clause)

Knowing each other well, Kendra trusted me. (Who knew each other well? Kendra knew each other? That does not make sense. This sentence is not as clear as the one above.)


Also, some stative verbs, such as the possessives "own" and "have," sound strange in some contexts. Note the examples:


Do you know the person owning that car? (This sounds strange. It sounds much better to say "Do you know the person who owns that car?")


The one having the most points at the end wins. (This also sounds strange. It should be "The one who has the most points at the end wins.")


To repeat, not every clause can be reduced to a phrase that maintains the same meaning as the original clause.


Can we just look at some examples?

Absolutely.


The following are examples of participle phrases. As you read them, can you think of their longer forms? (See below for their relative clause or adverb clause forms)

  1. The police spoke with the person accused of the crime.

  2. Hoping to ease tensions between management and employees, the company reversed its decision.

  3. The government pledged to rebuild the homes destroyed by the tsunami.

  4. People living in the country are generally happier than city dwellers.

  5. Realizing she couldn't change anything, Debbie quit.

  6. Kenny fell asleep staring at his phone.

  7. Frightened by the strange noises outside of her home, Lita ran to the basement.

Here are the same sentences in their original longer forms:

  1. The police spoke with the person who was accused of the crime.

  2. As/Because/Since they were hoping to ease tensions between management and employees, the company reversed its decision.

  3. The government pledged to rebuild the homes which were destroyed by the tsunami.

  4. People who live in the country are generally happier than city dwellers.

  5. When/Because she realized she couldn't change anything, Debbie quit.

  6. Kenny fell asleep while he was staring at his phone.

  7. As/Because/Since she was frightened by the strange noises outside of her home, Lita ran to the basement.

Can I practice now?

Yes! Look at the sentences below and reduce them so they use participle phrases. You can check your answers at the bottom of the page.


1. Because he was hoping to change the judge's mind, the district attorney called a surprise witness.


2. I spoke with the boy who was accused of stealing the ring.


3. Since I wanted her to like me, I gave Nia all the space she needed.


4. We will increase our production, which will lead to a prosperous first quarter.


5. The family who live next door to us are selling their house.


6. Darren, who needed a new bike, came into our store yesterday.


7. I screamed, which scared my mother.


8. Did you visit the village which was built in the 1800s?


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Answers


1. Hoping to change the judge's mind, the district attorney called a surprise witness.

2. I spoke with the boy accused of stealing the ring.

3. Wanting her to like me, I gave Nia all the space she needed.

4. We will increase our production, leading to a prosperous first quarter.

5. The family living next door to us are selling their house.

6. Darren, needing a new bike, came into our store yesterday.

7. I screamed, scaring my mother.

8. Did you visit the village built in the 1800s?


Do you have any questions or other examples you would like to share? Leave them in the comments for everyone to read. Until next time, I wish you success in your studies.

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