What are participles & participial phrases?

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What are participles & participial phrases?

Participles are forms of verbs. (That sounds kind of weird, but stick with me!) Although they are formed from verbs, they can also perform the job of an adjective, and that's what we're exploring here today.

Words that are formed from verbs but don't act as verbs are called verbals. There are two other kinds of verbals: gerunds and infinitives. You may have also heard of these referred to as non-finite clauses. 

Participle Sentence DiagramI love burnt marshmallows.

Again, participles (as verbals) are formed from verbs, but function as adjectives. You could say that they have identity issues.


As you know, these guys are formed from verbs and act as adjectives. They end in -ing, -d, -t, or -n.

Quick Refresher

Adjectives are words that describe nouns and pronouns.

Here are some examples. Notice that each one is made from a verb but is modifying a noun.

shooting star (shoot = verb, star = noun)

crying babies (cry = verb, babies = noun)

frozen food (froze = verb, food = noun)

burnt toast (burn = verb, toast = noun)

Since these act as adjectives, they're diagrammed in a very similar way to how adjectives are diagrammed. It's easy to see that they modify nouns and pronouns because they are diagrammed on a slanted, curved line underneath the noun or pronoun that they modify.

participle sentence diagram
Sentence Diagram with Participle

The filtered water tastes delicious.

Participial Phrases (& Participle Clauses)

Phrases are groups of words, without both a subject and a verb, functioning as a single part of speech. Participial phrases consist of a participle along with all of its modifiers and complements. Here are three examples. Notice that each phrase is modifying a noun.

Babies crying in the night bother me.

  • The participial phrase is crying in the night.
  • It modifies the noun babies.

Food frozen for over five years tastes icky.

  • The participial phrase is frozen for over five years.
  • It is modifies the noun food.

Burned on each side, the toast was inedible.

  • The participial phrase is burned on each side.
  • It modifies the noun toast.

What is a participle clause?

The short answer is that a participle clause is simply a different name for a participial phrase. Use whichever you like best.

I find that the term participle clause can be confusing to people because we typically define clauses as groups of words that contain both a subject and a verb, and participial phrases (participle clauses) do not contain a subject. (People who use the term participle clause may think of the word that the participle is modifying as the "subject" of the participle clause.) 

However, it's important to recognize that some schools of thought define terms a bit differently than we do here at Grammar Revolution. They would point out the difference between a clause with a finite verb (the main verb used in an independent and dependent clause) and a "clause" with a nonfinite verb (verbs that are not functioning as main verbs, including verbs that act as other parts of speech). I use the term verbal instead of nonfinite clause to refer to verbs that act as other parts of speech.  

Whew! That was kind of complicated. I hope that it made sense! 

Diagramming Participial Phrases

When diagramming these, start by identifying the participle and the noun that it is modifying.

You already know that you diagram it by putting it on a curved, slanted line under the noun that it modifies.

After that, find out what the rest of the phrase consists of and diagram it accordingly.

I'll walk you through the steps using this sentence:

How to diagram a participial phrase

Throwing rocks across the water, my friend smiled.

  • Step 1: Find the participle. (throwing)

  • Step 2: Find the noun that it modifies. (friend)

  • Step 3: Find the rest of the phrase. (rocks across the water)

  • Step 4: Figure out what the rest of the phrase is doing.

This is where your other grammar knowledge comes into play. In order to diagram this, you need to know that rocks is a direct object and across the water is a prepositional phrase.

This prepositional phrase is modifying throwing.

That means that we diagram the prepositional phrase underneath throwing.

Diagram rocks as if throwing is a normal verb.

Sentence Diagram of a Participial Phrase


When a participial phrase doesn't have a noun or pronoun to modify, it dangles. This is called a dangling participle. Click on that link to learn more.

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