Present participle phrases in detail

In this post, we learn what a present participle phrase is, and how to use it in a sentence correctly. 

What is a Present participle phrase?

A phrase that starts with a present participle and modifies a noun in a sentence is called a present participle phrase. It starts with a present participle (an ING form of a verb) and is followed by its object and/or a modifier.

It generally modifies a noun by talking about its state (what the person is doing).

Possible structures: 

  • Present participle + object + modifier/s
  • Present participle + object
  • Present participle + modifier/s

Examples:

  • The girl sitting beside the tree is the topper of our class.

Sitting – present participle
Besides the tree – adverb phrase (modifier)

Sitting beside the tree is the present participle phrase that’s starting with the present participle ‘sitting’ and modifying the noun ‘girl’. It tells us which girl the speaker is talking about by giving information about her.

  • Wearing a black coat, he enters the hall and waves at the students.

Wearing – Present participle
A black coat – the object of the verb ‘wearing’

The present participle phrase is telling us the state of the noun it’s modifying. When the subject (he) entered the hall and waved at the students, he was in a certain attire: wearing a black coat. So, the present participle phrase identifies the pronoun ‘he’ and gives us information about him. 

  • Feeding the little girl with his own hand, Avi started crying.

Feeding – present participle
the little girl – the object of the verb ‘feeding’
with his own hand – adverb phrase

The main clause is “Avi started crying.” The present participle phrase is telling us in what state the subject (he) was when he started crying: he was feeding the little girl with his own hand.

Present participle phrase explanation and examples
Present participle phrase explanation and examples

Usages of a present participle phrase

Present participle phrases are often used in the following ways:

  1. To identify a noun and describe it
  2. To give the reason of the main clause
  3. To give the result of an action

1. To identify the noun

Present participle phrases are often used to help the readers or listeners identify or get more information about a noun or pronoun. The information it provides can be essential or nonessential.

Nobody likes to talk with the man sitting on the rock alone.

Present participle – sitting
Modifier (adverb phrase) – on the rock alone

Here, the present participle phrase identifies the noun ‘man’ and gives essential information about him.

Listening to his favorite songs, Max checked all the papers and signed the posters.

Present participle – listening
to – preposition
the object of the preposition – his favorite songs

In this example, the present participle phrase modifies the noun ‘Max’ with extra information; Max is already a proper noun and needs no modification in order to be identified. It is describing the scene while he is checking the papers and signing the posters. The scene is that he is listening to some songs while performing doing actions.

Examples:-

  • Holding a cup of coffee in her hands, Jyoti watched us play cricket.
  • Look at the little girl walking on the rope.
  • He shook my hand and said goodbye, tears rolling down her cheeks.
  • We hid behind a wall, watching the boys rob a shop.
  • They are looking for the man living with you.
  • Can you see the tiny girl playing with the sand? She looks adorable doing that.
  • We entered the haunted house, trembling and sweating with fear.

2. To give the reason of the main clause

Present participle phrases sometimes introduce the reason for the action of the main clause.

Looking at the picture of his mother, Max started smiling.

Present participle – looking
Modifier (adverb of place) – at the picture of his mother

‘Max started crying’ is the main clause. Looking at the picture of his mother (the present participle phrase) identifies the subject ‘Max’ and causes (makes) him smile.

Examples:

  • Knowing he needed the money urgently for the surgery, he started panicking and crying.
  • Listening to what her colleagues said about her, she left the room and started crying.
  • Missing the college days, I called my friends.
  • Looking at the positive side of the job offer, Max accepted it.

3. To give the result of an action

We sometimes use Present participle phrases to introduce the result of an action. When they introduce the result of the main clause, they often come at the end of the sentence.

  • The car exploded into the house, hurting people sitting on the couch.

Present participle – hurting
object – people
modifier (present participle phrase) – sitting on the couch

The present participle phrase here is a result of the main clause. Notice the present participle (hurting) follows the subject of the main clause (the car): it is the car that hurt people who were sitting on the couch.

Examples:

  • He started talking about the death of his child, leaving everyone in tears.
  • The plane crashed into the building, destroying it and killing more than 200 people.
  • The government opened up the theatres, supermarkets, and beaches, giving everyone a reason to be happy about.
  • The company hired us all, giving us an opportunity to prove that you don’t a piece of paper to prove your worth.

Note: the present participle in the present participle phrase follows the subject of the main clause.

Position of a present participle phrase

A present participle phrase can take the following three positions:

  1. Beginning of a sentence
  2. In the middle of a sentence
  3. At the end of the sentence

Beginning of a sentence

This is the most common position of a present participle phrase in writing. Note that we use a comma right after the phrase to offset it from the main clause.

Examples:-

  • Holding a cup of tea, Jon enters the building.
  • Laying on the bed, Charu wrote the entire post.
  • Sitting in the exam room, I realised I didn’t love giving exams anymore.

Middle of a sentence

Sometimes, a present participle phrase comes right after the subject (noun/pronoun).

Examples:

  • Alex, looking into his phone, told us to leave the room.
  • He, sitting on a gaming chair, took the class.

End of a sentence

We can have a present participle phrase after the object of a preposition. Sometimes, it comes after a complete sentence, separating the main clause and indicating the post effect of the main clause or simply modifying a noun, or the subject of the main clause.

Examples:

  • They caught the guy wearing the red jacket the other day.
    (coming next to and identifying the noun ‘guy’)
  • I was talking about the man sitting next to your sister.
    (coming next to and identifying the noun ‘man’)
  • Conor submitted Justin in the final round, leaving everyone surprised.
    (The present participle phrase is not identifying any noun/pronoun here, It’s modifying the complete main clause, showing the result of the action in the main clause)
  • She left the room, fuming and crying.
    (Here, the present participle phrase is identifying the subject ‘she’, and telling us what her state was while she was leaving the room.)

Key points!

1. Don’t confuse a present participle phrase with a gerund phrase.

It is very common to confuse present participle phrases with gerund phrases as both of them start with a present participle (v+ing) and have objects and/or modifiers in them.

But a gerund phrase works as a noun whereas a present participle phrase works as an adjective or an adverb in a sentence.

Examples:

  • Listening to his favorite songs, he finished editing the video.

Listening to his favorite songs is the present participle phrase starting with the present participle listening and modifying the pronoun he. It is not working as a noun here.

  • Listening to his favorite songs makes him happy. (subject)
  • He loves listening to his favorite songs. (The object of the verb loves)
  • His favorite hobby is listening to his favorite songs. (The subject complement)
  • He is crazy about listening to his favorite songs. (The object of the preposition about)

Here, the phrase ‘listening to his favorite songs’ is working as a noun.

Notice a present participle phrase modifies something, generally a noun, in the main clause, and a gerund phrase works as a noun.

2. Participle phrases and commas!

We have used commas with some participle phrases, and with others, we have not. So, how do we know if we have to use commas with a participle phrase or not? Let’s understand this.

1. If a participle gives essential information about the noun it modifies, don’t use a comma.

  • The girl dancing on the stage is my sister. (giving essential information about the noun ‘girl’)
  • I was talking about the man sitting at the back bench with Riya. (giving essential information about the noun ‘man’)

Here, the present participle phrases (in red) help us to identify the noun the speaker is referring to.

2. If a participle gives nonessential information about the noun it modifies, use commas to offset it.

  • Holding a cup of tea, Jon enters the building.
  • Joe Rogan, living the life of a martial artist, is the owner of JRE, the most popular podcast on the internet.

Notice that the noun these present participle phrases are referring to is already identified and proper.

3. Present participle phrases either modify a noun or a verb, or a complete sentence.

Generally, a present participle phrase modifies a noun or a pronoun, but it can also modify a verb or a complete sentence.

Examples:

  • Motivating the class and giving them clarity about life, Ashish broke down. (modifying the noun ‘Ashish’)
  • Missing the college days, I called my friends. (modifying the verb ‘called’)
  • The car exploded into the house, hurting people sitting on the couch. ((modifying the main clause)

4. Don’t misplace your present participle phrase.

People often misplace participle phrases (both present and past participle phrases), which modify or appear to modify a wrong noun or nothing in a sentence.

Study the below examples to understand this:

  • Max bought a new car looking forward to impress people.

Notice that the present participle phrase is coming next to the noun ‘car’ and seem to modify it. But can a car look forward to something? Is it a human being? Does it have feelings? No! The noun it intends to modify is Max, but since it is placed far away from it, close to another noun, it seems to modify the noun ‘car’ incorrectly.

  • Trying to get some money, the house had to be sold.

Trying to get some money is the present participle phrase that appears to modify the subject of the sentence ‘the house’. But can the house (an object) really do an action? Can it lose a job? It can’t, right? And there is nothing else in the sentence that can be modified. So, the present participle phrase becomes dangling: hanging in the sentence without the word or words it intends to modify.

Hope you enjoyed reading the post and mastered the topic! ūüôā

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FAQs

2 thoughts on “Present participle phrases in detail”

  1. Hi Ashish,
    Thanks a lot about your teaching. I was wondering to know about one of your example :

    Wearing a black coat, he enters the hall and waves at the students.

    Why you said ‘he enters’ why you didn’t say ‘he entered’ .

    Appreciate your consideration.

    Reply
    • Hello, Moralido!
      Yes, it should be in the past tense. But this also refers back to the past. We sometimes use the Simple Present tense to talk about a past action, generally when we are narrating something or describing an entire event.

      That being said, using the verb in the past tense here is better.

      Reply

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