What’s The Difference Between Participial Phrase And Gerund?

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What Is A Participial Phrase

Is it a surprise that the noun participle has an adjective form?

If you arrived at this article by asking Google what a participle phrase is, don’t feel bad.

The correct term is a participial phrase. But I doubt anyone would argue that either the adjective form or the compound noun is acceptable.

For many writers, the use of the present participle can be a little confusing at times. It is because it has so many applications.


What is the present participle?

It can be a verb in continuous forms, or it can act as an adjective. The same word, when it is the gerund, functions as a noun and can be the subject of the sentence.

In a participial phrase, both the present and past participle function as an adjective by modifying nouns and pronouns.

But this means that the group of words in English that end in ing can be challenging to classify. You need to know how to identify them grammatically and use them correctly.

There is some good news, though. Unlike irregular past participles that can end in ed, en, or t, the ing form has no irregular forms.


What is a participial phrase?

It is a phrase that can look like a verb phrase. But it is an adjective that is describing or modifying a noun. The noun is usually the subject of the sentence.

The phrase often starts a sentence before the active subject-verb clause. It works similarly to how you would use a prepositional phrase. But it can be used anywhere in a sentence.

In fiction writing, especially, it is very common. But it is also frequently used in articles.

Here are some examples.

Running through his to-do list, John realizes he is in for a very long day.

In this simple example, the phrase modifies John, the subject of the sentence.

It might seem that the action or verb is to run. But it is describing John and explaining why he is in for a very long day. The active verb in the sentence is to realize.

Hurrying to get out of the office, Mary forgot her coat and umbrella.

Here the first clause is telling us the reason why Mary forgot her coat and umbrella. The active verb is to forget and not to hurry.


Frightened by the noise of the fireworks display, my dog hid under the table.

Here the object of the verb, to hide, is the table. Why was the dog there? Because he was frightened. It is clear that the adjective created by the participial phrase caused the dog to hide.


You can add a participial phrase in the middle or at the end of a sentence.

The queen, smiling and waving, acknowledged the crowd.

Mary kicked off her shoes and let her hair down, drained and tired from a long day in the office.


It is also possible when the particle is the object of the preposition.

Without looking up, my boss mumbled no to my request for leave.

On arriving at work, John makes his usual cup of coffee.


Do you always need a comma?

Yes, in most cases.

The only time when you don’t need a comma is when the participial phrase describes the word or subject directly after it.

I’m not sure, but I thought I saw Ryan running for the bus this morning.

Turning the pages slowly, Megan concentrated on her studies.

He reached up for the old photo album stored way in the back of the cupboard.

Using his thumbnail, Peter opened the battery cover.


Beware of dangling participles

A dangling modifier or participle occurs when you use a participle phrase at the start of a sentence. But the noun being modified is not directly after the comma.

Frustrated to the point of anger, the poor sales results were reviewed once again by the director. Incorrect

In this sentence, it appears that poor sales are frustrated. To correct this, we need to move the subject before any indirect objects.

Frustrated to the point of anger, the director reviewed the poor sales results once again. Correct


It always pays to keep your describing phrase as close as possible to the subject. By doing so, you will avoid the risk of confusing a reader or creating dangling modifiers.



Watch out for the gerund

When you use the present participle in a clause, it is important to recognize when it is, in fact, the gerund.

The way to tell is to know that the gerund acts as a noun and not as an adjective.

You are probably familiar with the gerund when it is used to express a favorite activity, a preference, or a dislike. We use it after the verb enjoys, loves, and adores, for example.

She enjoys dancing and singing.

Joe loves running in the woods.

Martha adores swimming, and it is one of her favorite sports.

He prefers reading a real book rather than an ebook. 

My wife hates ironing.


But the big issue is in recognizing when the gerund is the subject of the sentence. Then it is not an adjective like it is in a participial clause.

Having breakfast every day is very good for your health.

Knowing how to recognize the gerund is key to understanding your sentence structure.

Entering the building site without a hard hat is not permitted.

After reading the book twice, I still didn’t understand the story.

Before playing a match, I always go through my warm-up routine.



Like many grammatical forms, the key to understanding how to get them right is to pinpoint the subject of the sentence.

Second is identifying nouns and verbs and the words that modify them, such as adjectives and adverbs.

Once you can do these two things, everything becomes easier to understand, and you will be able to correct any errors.

For participial phrases, be clear that you are describing the subject of the sentence. If you use the present participle and there is no clear subject, you are probably using a gerund.


Derek Haines

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Derek Haines

A Cambridge qualified CELTA English teacher and author of 18 books with a life long passion for publishing in all forms. I started my working life as a lithographer and spent over 30 years in the printing and publishing business. Originally from Australia, I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago. My days are spent teaching English, writing and wrestling with technology while enjoying my glorious view of Lake Geneva and the Alps.

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