« Rules for Editors | Home | Tablets and E-readers: The Next Wave? »

Participial Phrase Abuse

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:20 PM

Don't cheapen your copy with needless or incorrect participial phrases.

Participial phrases, defined by About.com as "a word group consisting of a present or past participle and any modifiers, objects, and complements," can be troublesome for writers and editors alike. They lend themselves to a host of grammatical ills, including dangling participles and chronological impossibilities.

Dangling Participles

The most common problem associated with participial phrases is the dangling participle. Here's an example:

Swimming in the ocean, the cool water refreshed him.

This sentence, as written, tells us that the water is swimming in the ocean. Let's fix it:

Swimming in the cool ocean, he felt refreshed.

Or, more simply:

Swimming in the cool ocean refreshed him.

Chronological Impossibility

Consider the following sentence:

Walking down the hallway, he stopped to tie his shoe.

"Walking down the hallway" functions as a participial phrase. However, keep in mind that a participial phrase happens simultaneously with the main verb. Someone cannot walk down the hallway and stop to tie his shoe simultaneously, so this sentence needs revision.

A possible fix:

While walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied and stopped to tie it.

Another option:

Walking down the hallway, he noticed his shoe was untied. He stopped to tie it.

Another example:

Turning off her alarm clock, she fell back asleep.

Unless the subject has a highly irregular sleep cycle, she cannot simultaneously turn off her alarm and fall back asleep. She must first turn off her alarm and then fall back asleep.

A simple revision:

She turned off her alarm clock and fell back asleep.

Recasting the participial phrase as an independent clause allows us to make this sequence of events chronologically possible.

Summing It All Up

Use participial phrases with care, and use them sparingly. Participial phrase abuse is a common bad habit for newbie writers, so it falls upon us, the editors, to break them of this habit. When you come across one of these tricky phrases, ask yourself two key questions: (1) Does the action expressed in the participle link up with the main clause correctly? and (2) Can these two things occur simultaneously?

Add your comment.

« Rules for Editors | Top | Tablets and E-readers: The Next Wave? »