Past participle phrase in detail

This post will help you understand what a past participle phrase is, and. how to use it in a sentence correctly.

What is a past participle phrase?

A past participle phrase starts with a past participle and modifies a noun or a pronoun. It can give essential or nonessential information about the noun it modifies.

Examples:

  • The little girl diagnosed with cancer has written a book about her life.

diagnosed = past participle
with cancer = modifier (adjective complement)

The past participle phrase is modifying the noun girl and telling us which girl the speaker is talking about.

  • Played more than a million times on Youtube, my latest song is doing amazing.

played = past participle
more than a million times = modifier (adverb)

Played more than a million times on Youtube is the past participle phrase, starting with the past participle played and describing the noun my latest song.

  • I am planning to buy iPhone 11, rated 4.9 by the experts.

rated = past participle
4.9 = object of the verb ‘rated’
by the experts = modifier (prepositional phrase)

The past participle phrase is modifying the noun iPhone 11, but it is giving nonessential information about it, and that’s why it is separated from the rest of the sentence using a comma.

past participle phrase explanation with examples
past participle phrase explanation with examples

Types of past participle phrases

There are two types of past participle phrases in English:

  1. Essential past participle phrase
  2. Nonessential past participle phrase

Essential past participle phrase

An essential past participle phrase identifies a noun with essential information. It helps the reader or listener to identify the noun the speaker is referring to.

She is talking about the movie released last night.

released = past participle
last night = modifier (adverb of time)

The past participle phrase is modifying the noun ‘movie’ and telling us which movie the speaker is talking about.

We have come here to see the boy injured in the attack.

injured = past participle
in the attack = modifier (prepositional phrase)

The past participle phrase here is identifying the noun ‘boy’ and giving essential information for us to identify him.

The insurance company will not pay for everything destroyed by the fire.

destroyed = past participle
by the fire = prepositional phrase

The past participle phrase is modifying the pronoun everything, telling us what it includes. Since it is essential to identify the pronoun, it is not offset using a comma.

More examples:

  • The man taken to the police station is a terrorist.
  • The actor approached for this role is busy with his own project right now.
  • They are still searching for the bike stolen from this park last month.
  • He has brought some fruits plucked by his mother.
  • The gifts bought for Jon’s wedding have been stolen.
  • The sofa set ordered last night from Amazon is in the hall.

Note that the past participle phrases used in these examples are identifying a noun (italicized) with essential information. They are telling us which noun the speaker is referring to.

Nonessential past participle phrase

We call a past participle phrase or any phrase ‘nonessential’ when it does not give essential information about the noun or pronoun it modifies; when it gives extra information that makes the sentence more colorful but does not identify the noun.

He is traveling to Chandigarh, ranked one of the cleanest cities by the government.

The past participle phrase here is giving information about the noun ‘Chandigarh’. But the information is extra or nonessential as Chandigarh is already an identified or proper name.

I am planning to buy iPhone 11, rated 4.9 by the experts.

The past participle phrase is modifying the noun iPhone 11, but it is giving nonessential information about it, and that’s why it is separated from the rest of the sentence using a comma.

More examples:

  • Played more than a million times on Youtube, my latest song is doing amazing.
  • Motivated by his friends, Ron accepted the job offer.
  • Renovated recently, my house is shining like a diamond.

NOTE: a past participle phrase can also work as the cause of the main clause. In such situations, it comes at the beginning of a sentence.

  • Encouraged by his friends, he took the offer and began working on the project.

Here, the past participle phrase is working as the reason why the subject did the action in the main clause. His friends encouraging him resulted in him taking the offer and starting to work.

More examples:

  • Frustrated with the job and the people he was working with, he left the company.
  • Dropped from the team the fourth time, Jon stopped playing cricket and opened his own company.
  • Motivated by all the teachers, Alex joined the IAS coaching.

Past participle phrases and commas

It is vital to learn when and when not to use commas with a past participle phrase.

When to use a comma

There are two situations where we use a comma with a past participle or even a present participle phrase:

  1. If a past participle phrase gives nonessential or extra information about the noun or pronoun it modifies, use a comma after it (if the noun appears before it).
  2. Use a comma after the past participle phrase when it comes at the beginning of a sentence. Here, the noun it modifies is the subject of the main clause and comes right next to it.

Examples:

  • He has bought Audi A7, launched two weeks ago.
  • Launched two weeks ago, Audo A7 is catching a lot of eyeballs.

When not to use a comma

If a participle phrase (both past and present) gives essential information (information that helps us identify the noun the speaker is referring to) about the noun/pronoun it modifies, don’t offset the phrase using a comma.

Examples:

  • Do you still have the bag gifted to you on your last birthday? (helping us identify which bag the speaker is referring to)
  • The boy thrown out of the college belongs to a rich family. (telling us which boy the speaker is talking about)

It would be a mistake to add a comma before the past participle phrases in these sentences.

  • Do you still have the bag, gifted to you on your last birthday? ❌
  • The boy, thrown out of the college, belongs to a rich family. ❌

A past participle phrase is a reduced adjective clause

A past participle phrase is a reduced adjective clause. An adjective clause is reduced to a participle phrase by dropping the following things:

  1. Conjunction
  2. Subject of the clause
  3. Helping verb (if any)

Sometimes, the conjunction itself works as the subject of the adjective clause

Adjective clause – The little girl who is diagnosed with cancer has written a book about her life.
Reduced adjective clause – The little girl diagnosed with cancer has written a book about her life.

Adjective clause – She is talking about the movie that was released last night.
Reduced adjective clause – She is talking about the movie released last night.

Adjective clause – The actor whom we have approached for this role is busy with his own project right now.
Reduced adjective clause – The actor approached for this role is busy with his own project right now.

Note that when an adjective clause is reduced to a past participle phrase, we drop the conjunction, the subject, and the helping verb.

NOTE: the noun that a past participle phrase modifies receives its action. The noun does not perform the action of the past participle phrase. The phrase is in the passive voice.

  • The man taken to the police station is a terrorist.
    (The man is the receiver of the action ‘taken’. He did not do the action.)
  • I finishsed reading the book written by Arun Das.
    (The book is the object of the verb ‘write’. The doer of the action is Arun Das.)

Don’t misplace your past participle phrase!!!

You need to be careful about where you place your participle phrase; placing it a little far away from the word it modifies can end up giving you a misplaced modifier.

Downloaded by more than a million people, I felt great about my application.

The participle phrase is sitting beside the subject I, appearing to be modifying it. Now, ask this question: can I be downloaded? No, right? So, this participle phrase is misplaced, but the sentence is still grammatically fine. It is just that it looks clumsy and ambiguous. People might consider this participle phrase to be modifying the subject I where it’s intended to modify the noun application. It’s the application that is downloaded by more than a million people.

Correction: I felt great about my application, downloaded by more than a million people.

We started a business, motivated by Sadhguru.

The past participle phrase here seems to be modifying the noun business, which it’s sitting next to. Now, ask the same question: can a business be motivated? Is it a person? The participle phrase is intended to modify the subject we, but it seems to be modifying business.

Correction: Motivated by Sadhguru, we started a business.

Dangling modifiers using a past participle phrase

Dangling modifiers are modifiers that don’t have anything to modify in a sentence. Participle phrases can be dangling modifiers when used unnecessarily. Let me show you some examples.

Felt offended, the movie was taken down.

The sentence does not have the word the past participle phrase can modify. It seems to be modifying the noun ‘movie’. But a movie can’t be offended; it is not a person.

Pushed by everyone, the house was sold.

The past participle phrase does not have anything to modify in this sentence. And it seems to be modifying the noun ‘house’. But we know a house can not be pushed or motivated.

How to correct a dangling modifier?

There are two ways to correct a dangling modifier:

  1. Remove the participle phrase.
  2. Add a noun or a pronoun that the participle phrase can possibly modify.

Corrections 1:

  • The movie was taken down.
  • Felt offended, the censor board took the movie down.

Corrections 2:

  • The house was sold.
  • Pushed by everyone, Jon sold the house.

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