How Participle Phrases Can Lead to Time Warps

Freelance editor Joshua Essoe shows us how to avoid a common problem: participles that cause time warps.

Joshua Essoe, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #451

participle phrases;


I want to talk about a time warp in writing that I see fairly often: participial phrases that seem to suggest impossible, simultaneous action. Good grief, what does that mean? It means it's a good opportunity to talk about grammar! It also means I see sentences where characters are performing multiple actions, but one of those actions must obviously take place before the other can happen, and in the sentence, they don’t.


Taking off his jacket, he threw his keys on the countertop and poured himself a whiskey.

What's gone wrong in that sentence? Well, first let me back up and explain a couple of things.

A participial phrase is a phrase that acts like an adjective and starts with a participle. "Whoa there, cowboy," I hear you say, "what's a participle?”

First of all, I'm not a cowboy. Second of all, participles are verbals—they look like verbs, they smell like verbs, they sound like verbs, but they are not verbs. Yes, they have identity issues, but they're a little easier to pin down than Keyser Soze. A participle is a word formed from a verb that can be used as an adjective. That doesn't make a lot of immediate sense so check out this cool chart:

The Verb The Past Participle The Present Participle
to fall  the fallen hero the falling hero
to heat the heated oven the heating oven
to ring the rung bell the ringing bell

Visit this page for much more detail on participles (and gerunds).

Note the irregular verb in the last example. Now we're cooking. The two types of participles are the present participle, ending in -ing, and the past participle, usually ending in -ed, -d, -t, -en, or -n, but there are irregular forms too such as rung which is the past participle of the verb to ring in the phrase the rung bell.

Participial phrases contain at least one participle. (A phrase is a group of words, without both a subject and verb, that functions as a single part of speech.) A participial phrase acts like an adjective phrase. So, going back to our examples, here they are again, used as participial phrases:

The Verb The Participial Phrase
to fall

Falling from his mount, the hero clutched his wound.

Falling from his mount is the participial phrase telling us about the subject, the hero.

to heat

The blade glowed orange, heated in the smith's fire.

Heated in the smith’s fire is the participial phrase telling us about the blade. Note that the participial phrase doesn’t have to be at the beginning, it can come last in the sentence. 

to ring

I saw the pastor ringing the bell.

Ringing the bell is the participial phrase telling us about the pastor.

Here’s one last example:

Blasting fireballs from his hands, the wizard attacked.

What is the noun being modified? The wizard.

What is the participle? It is blasting.

What is the participle phrase? It is blasting fireballs from his hands.

Next: Learn About the Time Warp


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