Using a participle directly after the noun it describes poses a number of grammar problems
FEATURES OF PARTICIPLES
Participles have the following features:
(i) They are made from verbs.
(ii) They are of three different types:
PRESENT: made by adding -ing to a base verb (e.g. going) or the BE part of a passive (e.g. being seen). As this is also the form of gerunds, confusion is possible. For details of the difference, see 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”. Note that the term “present” is slightly problematic because -ing participles can easily refer to past actions (e.g. Leaving Britain, Caesar rushed to Rome).
PAST: made either with -ed added to a regular verb (e.g. involved) or with the “third” form of an irregular verb (e.g. put, taken, frozen – see 97. Verb Form Confusions). Again, “past” is slightly misleading because these participles can refer to present time too. Often their central meaning is “passive”.
PERFECT: made by placing having before a “past” participle (e.g. having seen, having noticed).
(iii) They cannot be the only verb in a sentence – there must always be another verb with them. This is what grammar books mean when they say participles are “non-finite”.
(iv) They have many similarities to adjectives: they usually need a nearby noun to describe (see 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”); they can be placed after very or very much (see 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”); and many can be used like a suffix to change a noun into an adjective (see 106. Word-Like Suffixes).
Participles can go in four main positions relative to the noun they describe: some distance before it, immediately before it (e.g. the emerging picture), immediately after it (e.g. the picture emerging), and in a delayed position after it. This post is about the third of these positions, the use immediately after a noun, as in this example:
(a) Some computers have function keys running along the top of the keyboard.
PROBLEMS WITH PARTICIPLES PLACED JUST AFTER A NOUN
1. Confusability with Ordinary Verbs
It is quite a common error in sentences like (a) to use an ordinary verb – present simple runs or present continuous are running – instead of the participle. This is an error because the sentence then has two ordinary verbs (the other being have) without any “joining device” – a situation not normally allowed in English (see 30. When to Write a Full Stop). If you say running, on the other hand, there is a joining device in the participle ending -ing. Like all joining devices, it can only be used if there is another verb in the sentence besides the one it is associated with – which is another way of saying that participles cannot be the only verb in a sentence.
The participle ending -ing is not actually the only way to join RUN onto have in (a). The most obvious alternative is conjunctions: we could say (perhaps a little clumsily) and these run. We could also use a relative pronoun: which run. However, running is the simplest and neatest.
Here is another sentence where the same kind of error is easily made. What should be the form of the missing verb BEND?
(b) Coat hangers ARE often MADE of thin metal … into a triangular shape.
The correct form here is the “past” participle bent. The ordinary verb forms bends and are bent are wrong because they would not be linked grammatically to the main verb are made, while the “present” participle bending is wrong because the meaning is passive, not active (for more on passive meaning, see 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive).
In (a) and (b) the participle comes after the main verb; however, elsewhere it will be before, like this:
(c) Food remaining in the jar HAS TO BE THROWN away.
The same error of using an ordinary verb (remained) seems possible in such cases, though it may be less frequent.
2. Confusability with Other Joining Devices
A common error is to have who, which or that and a participle together – *which (or that) running in (a). This mixes up two alternative correct structures, running and which/that run (an easy thing to do – see 133. Confusions of Similar Structures). Putting which with -ing is incorrect because they are both joining devices, each needing its own verb in addition to the main one in the sentence – they cannot share the same verb RUN.
With who, which and that an ordinary verb is needed instead of a participle, either present continuous (are running) or present simple (run), the latter being preferable in (a) because the meaning is general (as defined in the Guinlist post 89. Using “the” with General Meaning). The -ing of “present” participles should not be confused with the present continuous tense!
The combination and running is possible in some contexts, but not in (a) since it again creates two joining devices instead of one. To use and, you have to say and they run.
3. Confusability with Infinitives
Infinitive verbs have no ending. They usually follow to (to go, to be, to see etc.), but sometimes they do not and are said to be “bare” (see 148. Infinitive Verbs without “to”). There is one particular situation where a bare infinitive can be an alternative to an -ing participle after a noun, e.g.:
(d) Gazelles easily escape predators if they hear them approach/approaching.
The “noun” before the participle here is actually a pronoun (them). After it, approach is an infinitive and approaching a participle. They are both grammatically possible when their “noun” them is the object of a “perception” verb (hear). Other verbs like this are FEEL, NOTICE, OBSERVE, SEE, SMELL and WATCH. The verb HAVE can also act similarly (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE).
Although an infinitive is grammatically possible in sentences like (d), it gives a slightly different meaning, presenting the whole action as a single moment, rather than highlighting its ongoing nature as -ing participles do. The wrong choice can therefore be made: in (d) approach is probably wrong because it would represent the whole of a predator’s approach – surely too long a wait to ensure survival. Approaching would suggest “during an approach”. Grammarians call this meaning contrast “aspect”. For more examples, see 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb and 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns.
4. Requirement to Use Commas in a Special Way
Because participles after a noun are similar to ordinary verbs with who, which and that, they have to follow the same comma rules that these latter words have. The rules are extensively considered in the post 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas. Consider, for example, the following:
(e) The London located in Canada is less well-known than London in the UK.
(f) The Taj Mahal, located in Northern India, is a wonder of the world.
In both of these cases, the participle located corresponds to which is located. No commas are possible in (e) because located follows a noun (London) with more than one possible meaning, and is helping to identify which one of the possibilities is meant. In contrast, (f) has two commas because located is not helping to identify which of different Taj Mahals is meant – there is only one.
The same thing happens with -ing participles. No commas are possible in (g) because the participle living acts like who live to help identify which people are meant:
(g) People living in glass houses should not throw stones.
5. Inexact Equivalence to who/which/that
A participle sometimes cannot replace a relative pronoun plus ordinary verb. This happens when the verb is (I) active and (II) either surrounded by commas or signifying a past completed event, as in these examples:
(h) The Prime Minister, who heads the government, is formally appointed by the President.
(i) The person who invented light bulbs deserves a special honour.
It would be incorrect to say *heading in (h). You do sometimes see an -ing participle between commas, but only if it expresses a reason for what the rest of the sentence says. Heading a government is not normally a reason for being appointed by a president. Here is an example of a reason-showing -ing participle with commas:
(j) Older racing cars, possessing (= which possessed) few safety features, caused numerous fatalities.
In (i), the active verb invented clearly signifies a completed past event, ruling out the participle inventing. Compare (i) with (c), where the participle remaining is possible because it expresses a state rather than an event, and with (g), where living is possible because the meaning is general not past.
6. Inability of some Participles to Follow their Noun
There are some complicated rules governing whether participles should come before or after their noun. Like adjectives, they must come after when they begin a longer phrase, e.g. emerging last week (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun). Used alone, however, some come before (e.g. interesting, hard-working, rising, improved, related), some come after (e.g. appearing, arising, found, shown), and many may come either before or after (e.g. emerging, remaining, observed, indicated, preferred).
Guidelines on which lone participles can go where are scarce. I wondered whether the combinability of participles with either very or much (e.g. very interesting/much debated – see 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”) might be a factor, but it does not seem to be. Perhaps meaning may occasionally help. Participles seem able to express two kinds of meaning: lasting conditions/properties or one-off events. It may be that the first kind of meaning is commonly expressed by participles before their noun, the second by those placed after.
Participles that vary their positions sometimes seem capable of having either kind of meaning, according to their position. Compare the following:
emerging nations/the colour emerging
a used car/the method used
the preferred solution/the solution preferred
an experienced worker/the sensation experienced
Describing nations, emerging is a state (constant emergence), but with colour it is a single event. With car, used is a condition, but with method it suggests the action of utilising. Preferred before its noun seems to mean “liked”, but after it to mean “recently chosen” (see 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning). Experienced before its noun means “possessing experience” rather than “encountered now”.
Unfortunately, exceptions seem quite common. Remaining always expresses a state, but can go after its noun as well as before – as can indicated, chosen and observed despite seeming to express only one-off actions.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: VERB FORM SELECTION
The following exercise is similar to one in my book Grammar Practice for Professional Writing. You have to put the capitalised verbs into their correct forms (answers afterwards).
1. An essay WRITE carefully and accurately may receive a high grade.
2. Mount Everest RISE nearly 8km above sea level on the India-Nepal border.
3. A diameter is a straight line PASS from one side of a circle to another through the centre.
4. According to scientists, the current unrestrained burning of fossil fuels CAUSE a dangerous amount of global warming.
5. A questionnaire was administered and the data OBTAIN SHOW some surprising trends.
Answers: 1 = written (passive participle; other verb = may receive); 2 = rises (present simple active; no other verb); 3 = passing (active participle; other verb = is); 4 = is causing or causes (present simple/continuous active; no other verb – burning and warming are not “proper” verbs); 5 = obtained (passive participle; main verb = showed) and showed (past simple active, linked to earlier was administered by and).