Many students think that participle phrases must modify the subject. Here are three examples where that’s true:
In all three cases, the participle phrase “thinking about the day ahead” modifies “Ed”.
- Thinking about the day ahead, Ed set off for work.
- Ed set off for work, thinking about the day ahead.
- Ed, thinking about the day ahead, set off for work.
But then wouldn’t a sentence like
The fashion designer noticed my interest in the yellow jacket, sewn with leather elbow pads.
be wrong? After all, “fashion designer” is the subject and it wouldn’t make sense to say a person was “sewn with leather elbow pads”.
As it turns out, this sentence is perfectly fine as well, so let’s clear up any confusion.
What you must understand is that a participle phrase does not always have to modify the subject. When it comes at the end of the sentence, it modifies the noun that it makes sense to modify.
So in the sentence “Ed set off for work, thinking about the day ahead,” the phrase “thinking about the day ahead” modifies “Ed” because that’s what makes sense. Even though the participle phrase is placed next to “work”, the sentence is still correct because it’s understood we’re talking about Ed.
But in the sentence about the fashion designer, the phrase “sewn with leather elbow pads” modifies “yellow jacket”.
Students tend to get mixed up because they’re taught one of the following:
- Participle phrases must modify the subject.
- Participle phrases must modify the noun they’re placed next to.
But these rules don’t always hold, and in fact, they sometimes conflict with each other as in the examples above.
So here’s what you need to remember:
When a participle phrase is at the end of a sentence, it modifies the noun it makes sense to modify. Everywhere else, participle phrases modify the noun they’re placed next to.
Think of participle phrases at the end as a special case.
So if you see a sentence like
Buzzing from flower to flower, the wrestler watched the bee.
It’s wrong because we’re dealing with a participle phrase at the beginning of the sentence. In this case, it modifies the noun it’s placed next to—“the wrestler”—which doesn’t make any sense. This is a modifier error and the phrase should be moved to the end:
The wrestler watched the bee, buzzing from flower to flower.