More About the Participle

We took up the topic of participles recently (What Is a Participle?), and of course there’s more to be said about this intricate linguistic device. A participle, we reminded ourselves, is an adjective built from a verb, so in the example we looked at, The speaker’s opening remarks were compelling, the participle opening is describing the noun remarks. So far so good, because that’s what all adjectives do, modify a noun in some way. But because the participle opening derives from the verb to open, it is pointing to a characteristic that is present in the remarks by virtue of some action: the implication is that these remarks are opening something, and we can easily understand that they are opening the speaker’s speech.

But suppose the writer had revised his original sentence like this: Opening his remarks with a compelling story, the speaker held the attention of everyone listening. What has changed? Most prominently, what is opening something is no longer the remarks, but the speaker. In this version, we are to understand that the speaker opened his remarks in a certain way, and by virtue of doing that, he held the attention of his audience. The participle opening, that is to say, now points to an active characteristic present in the noun speaker, not in the remarks, and this change has made the noun remarks an object of the participle opening, not its subject.

How can a participle have an object? Why not, since a participle, as we have agreed, is built from a verb. Verbs regularly (though not uniformly) take objects, so when a participle derives from a transitive verb (a verb that takes a direct object) like the verb to open, that participle, just like its originating verb, can have an object of its own. Participles do not work outside the agreed-upon rules of expository prose, the kind of language we use every day to identify objects and explain how they’re connected. All participles do, whether they have an object or not, is give us a way to imply those connections, not assert them directly. As subordinate constructions, participles abbreviate, consolidate, compress an idea, thereby varying the level of importance of what we wish to communicate.

This can be materially helpful in revising our original drafts. If every sentence we wrote were no more complex than an uninterrupted series of independent clauses, our language would not represent the elaborate diversity of the world we find ourselves in. There is nothing wrong, of course, with a sentence like the speaker opened his remarks with a compelling story, and he held the attention of everyone, but too many sentences of such parallel grammatical construction (what is technically called a paratactic arrangement) will not faithfully represent the world as we exist in it. We do not live our lives regarding everything we encounter of equal importance; some objects and events take their life and remain in the background of other objects and events we consider more immediately important. Good writing respects that living scale of relevance, and builds it accordantly into the construction of sentences.

What we as writers want, then, is the confident ability to identify and change the structure of what we have written in order to change the scene our readers are reading. Sometimes we will want to throw the subject of a sentence into relief, and so a participial construction will create the background against which another action can stand more prominently: Opening his remarks with a compelling story, the speaker held the attention of everyone listening. Other times, though, we might deem it necessary to trade a richer scene for a more obvious one, and so convert a participial phrase into a clause: the speaker opened his remarks with a compelling story, and held the attention of everyone. Knowing which to choose depends on audience and purpose, the two controlling criteria we should always be aware of in drafting a document. After that, the choice of our written voice is ours.


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