The Participle

“In grammatical description, the term for two non-finite VERB forms, the –ing participle (known traditionally as the present participle) and the –ed participle (known traditionally as the past participle or the passive participle).

The -ing (present) participle: This verb form ends with the inflection –ing and is used in combination with a form of the auxiliary form be for the progressive continuous, as in: am driving, was playing, will be going, has been talking. It is also used as the verb in an –ing participle clause as in: Marvin and Jane liked playing with their grandchildren; Despite his protestations, Stanley was not averse to having a birthday party; John and Linda were happy to see Daniel behaving himself during the meal; After giving her lecture, Venetia had lunch with me at the College; The young man driving me to the shopping center was Jeremy.

 The –ed (past) participle: This verb form ends with the inflection spelled –ed, -d, or –t for all regular verbs and many irregular verbs, but many irregular verbs form it with an –en or –n inflection (as in stolen, known) or with a change in the middle vowel (as in sung, in which it is often identical with the simple past form, as with sat), or a combination of the two methods (as with written). The –ed participle combines with a form of the auxiliary form have for the perfect: has cared, had said, may have walked. It combines with a form of the auxiliary be for the passive: is paid, was told, are being auctioned, could not have seen. It is also used as the verb in an –ed participle clause. I had my study redecorated; Asked for his opinion, Tom was non-committal; Among the objects recovered from the ship was a chair stamped with the captain’s initials.

Attributive Uses: Both participles may be used in the attributive position like an adjective, but only if the participle indicates some sort of permanent characteristic: running water, the missing link, a broken heart, lost property. The phrase The Laughing Cavalier is possible as the name of a picture (the man is laughing all the time), but Who is that laughing man? would be odd in most contexts. The –ed participle usually has a passive meaning (listed buildings, burnt almonds, written instructions), but it may also be used actively with some intransitive verbs (an escaped prisoner). Some participles that are not permanent enough to be used attributively alone are acceptable when modified (their long-awaited visit).

Participles and Word Formation: There is a range of usage between participles that which remain fully verbal (running in swiftly running water) and those that in some contexts are completely adjectival (interesting in a very interesting idea; disappointed in a very disappointed man). There are also some participle-like formations for which there are no corresponding verbs: an unexplained discrepancy, an unconvincing narrative, for which there are no conventional verbs *to unexplain and *to unconvince; a bearded man; a forested hillside; a blue-eyed man; a one-armed bandit are common constructions which are aspects of word-formation rather than grammar.

Participial Clauses: Traditionally known as participial phrases, such clauses function in various ways: (1) they can follow noun phrases (like abbreviated relative clauses): ‘The train (which is) now standing at Platform 5 is…,’ ‘The food (that was) served on the plane was….'(2) They can function rather like finite subordinate clauses, with or without a conjunction, and with various meanings, often of time (‘While running for the train, he lost his wallet’) reason (‘Jostled by the crowd, he did not really see what happened’), or result (‘The train started suddenly, throwing an elderly passenger to the floor’). (3)  They can follow an object verb of the senses: ‘We could all hear him singing in the bath;’ ‘He didn’t see that soap lying on the floor.’ Occasionally this multiplicity of functions may lead to ambiguity: ‘I witnessed a sergeant push his way past supporters drinking openly in the aisle’ (letter to Daily Telegraph, 27 May 1988).

The Dangling Participle: When a participial clause contains its own subject it is called an ABSOLUTE CLAUSE, as in ‘Weather permitting, we’ll go sailing this weekend.’ When, as is more usual, such a clause does not contain a subject, it normally refers grammatically to the subject of the main clause: in ‘I made my way, depressed, to the ticket office,’ it is clear who was depressed, and in ‘The woman on the chair beside was tipped onto my lap, complaining all the time’ it is clear who was complaining (both from Colin Thubron, Behind the Wall, 1987). Failure to maintain such a clear relationship leads to the so-called dangling, hanging, misrelated, or unattached participle, as in: ‘Her party was the first to discover that there were no sleepers left. The entire section had been booked. Faced with a forty-four-hour journey, this was far from good news’ (Patrick Marnham, So Far from God, 1985).

With participles that attach themselves to the wrong noun, the effect may be momentarily confusing even if the writer’s meaning is clear: ‘[Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s] celebrity on television was so great that, boarding an empty bus late one rainy night when in a white tie with rows of medals, a conductress arranged with the driver to take him to the door of Wheeler’s small house off Haymarket’ (Anthony Powell, To Keep the Ball Rolling, 1982). Here, the meaning may be fairly obvious, but on first reading it is the conductress who boards the bus. In the following example, it is the lines that apparently provided the clues: ‘By taking a great many observations and analyzing them statistically, the lines gave crucial clues about the intervening space between us and the quasars, and therefore of the universe’s early history’ (in “Bonfire of the Cosmos,” Observer, 16 April, 1989). Sometimes, the pictures presented are simply absurd: ‘After traveling by road all day…, the 123-room Sahara is an air-conditioned all-mod-cons watering hole’ (Daily Telegraph, 22 September 1984); ‘There, coasting comfortably down the attractive green coastline, the town of Malacca with its prominent hill was very evident’ (Tim Severin, The Sinbad Voyage, 1982).

Participial Prepositions and Conjunctions: Apparent exceptions to the rule that participles should be properly attached are a number of participial forms that now function as prepositions, such as following in ‘There was a tremendous cleaning up to do following the storm,’ and including in ‘We all enjoyed ourselves, including the dog;’ and participle forms that are now conjunctions, such as providing (that) and provided (that) in ‘Everything will be all right providing/provided you don’t panic,’ and given in ‘Given the difficulties, I’d say it was a success.’”

Excerpted from: McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Concise Companion to the English Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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