A Little More on the Participle

After two recent posts on the subject of participles (From Clause to Phrase and Being Clear about the Connection), one more is in order to explain what they are and how to use them more exactly. What is, then, the grammatical difference between these two sentences and which of them is correct: Having so much to do every day, exercise is out of the question. Having so much to do every day, I get up early during the week to exercise. The second is the correct construction, but now, of course, we have to know why.

Each of the two sentences opens with the same phrase, what we may call more exactly a participial phrase because this group of words begins with the present participle having. Participles are tricky, there’s no doubt about that, but if we can remember that participles are adjectives, we’ll be better able to see how they work. An adjective most often describes someone or something, and we usually expect it to name some quality or feature or characteristic: a beautiful face, a delicious cake, a comfortable chair. The adjectives beautiful and delicious and comfortable all describe their respective nouns, but they do so in a way that suggests that each of those qualities is part of the thing they are describing: here’s a cake and here’s deliciousness. Mix the two together and you have a delicious cake.

In fact, this idea of seeing a quality as part of a noun is exactly why an adjective is called an adjective—the term means in Latin added to. By putting an adjective together with a noun, we are adding a quality to something we are talking about. But what is especially important to note here is that the three adjectives, or descriptions, we have chosen—beautiful, delicious, and comfortable—are all static; they are qualities at rest, so to speak, in the nouns they are describing. Participles, by contrast, are adjectives that describe their nouns dynamically: they name something a noun is doing, not merely what is a part of it.

This clarification should give us a way, then, to understand the difference between our two examples. If each sentence opens with the participial phrase having so much to do every day, we now understand that someone or something must be having so much to do, because the participle having is describing some noun or pronoun in just the same way as beautiful is describing a face or delicious is describing a cake—except that the participle having is pointing to an action, not a residing quality.

An English sentence is set up so that an opening participial phrase is to modify the subject of the main clause that follows. The first sentence, then, says that exercise is what has so much to do every day, because the noun exercise is the subject of is, the subject and verb of the following main clause. That, however, makes no logical sense in the world to which we all belong, and the violation of logic in expository prose is the point beyond which there is no hope for a sentence. The subject of the second sentence, though, is the pronoun I, and I can indeed logically have so much to do every day. The second sentence, then, works nicely and neatly, both logically and grammatically, and that’s enough to send it on its way.

So why, then, would it still be correct, as in fact it is, to say beginning in July, gas prices are expected to rise? Doesn’t the participle beginning describe gas prices, the noun of the following main clause? And doesn’t that too violate common logic and sense? It certainly does, but because in a construction like this no person or thing is felt to be beginning anything—what is beginning, in other words, is a larger, more general situation or economic circumstance which is not attributable to any one subject—this usage is accepted and termed an absolute participle. Absolute in grammar means separated, or isolated, from the main construction of the sentence, and therefore not affecting the integrity of its structure.

And so the participle. Keep your eye on the subject of the main clause that follows and that will keep things clear—almost always.


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