Present Participle as Adjective

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As one of our readers tells her students, writers should rejoice in the present participle because it is one of the rarities of English “rules”: one thing they can count on.

Unlike its sibling the past participle, the present participle always has the same ending.

English verbs have five principal parts: Infinitive, Simple Present, Simple Past, Past Participle, and Present Participle.

Past participles take different forms, but the present participle always ends in -ing.

Used with helping verbs, the present participle forms the continuous tenses:

We were living in Taiwan at the time. (past continuous)

Tom Selleck has been playing law enforcement characters for thirty-four years. (present perfect continuous)

Used without a helping verb, the present participle functions as an adjective. (The -ing verb form has another use, but this post is about its function as an adjective.)

Here are some specific uses of the present participle:

in front of a noun
Poirot solved the puzzling mystery. (modifies “mystery”)
The smell of burning leaves stirs memories of my childhood. (modifies “leaves”)

after a verb of perception
They heard someone screaming. (modifies “someone”)
The woman watched the cat creeping toward the bird. (modifies “cat”)

with the verbs spend and waste
Don’t waste your time trying to convince him he’s mistaken. (modifies understood subject “You.”)
The inefficient blogger spent her entire afternoon researching and writing one post. (modify the subject “blogger”)

to introduce a participial phrase
Weeping bitterly over her loss, Gwendolyn lay on the bed for several hours.
The archaeologist, sweeping the shards into a neat pile, cursed his clumsiness.

It is this last use of the participle that often leads to the error known as a “dangling participle.” For example:

Stubbing his toe on the step, the heavy chair fell from his grasp.

Leaning affectionately toward him, her head rested against his shoulder.

The participle phrases in these two examples are “dangling” because there’s no appropriate noun for them to describe. Dangling participles can be corrected in more than one way:

1. Provide an appropriate noun or pronoun for the phrase to describe:

Stubbing his toe on the step, the mover dropped the heavy chair.

Leaning affectionately toward him, she rested her head against his shoulder.

2. Rewrite the phrase as a clause:

When the mover stubbed his toe against the step, the heavy chair fell from his grasp.

She leaned affectionately toward him and rested her head against his shoulder.

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