101. Add-On Participles


Sentences can be expanded by adding on a participle and its dependent words at the end



Participles are verbs in a particular form that can be used like an adjective (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun). They can be used in sentences in at least five different ways (see 75. How to Avoid “Dangling” Participles). In this post I wish to examine one of these ways:

(a) The disease spread widely, inflicting much suffering.

Here the participle inflicting adds a new statement onto the end of an existing one. In addition, the noun that the participle describes (disease) comes well before it, and is the subject of another verb placed in between (spread).

These are the key features of what I call “add-on” participles. They are similar to those of “add-on” adjectives (see 159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2, #3). Note that being near the end of a sentence is not in itself enough. The following participles are not add-on, since they describe the wrong noun:

(b) A poor diet can leave a child struggling at school.

(c) The labourers left the fields, their work completed.

In (b), the participle struggling describes the object of the main verb (a child) rather than its subject. It is, in fact, an “object complement” (see 92. Complement-Showing “As”). In (c), the noun described by the participle completed (work) is a new one placed directly before it instead of one already used before the main verb. In the next example, the right noun is described but the participle is still not add-on:

(d) The debate about consciousness remains perplexing.

Here perplexing is a complement of the subject debate. In other words, it not only describes this noun, but is helped to do so by the main verb remains (see 92. Complement-Showing “As”). Add-on participles do not need the main verb like this.

If an add-on participle and its dependent words are left out, a possible sentence will still remain. A preceding comma, as in (a), seems quite common, but is not always present:

(e)  Trains are likely to be delayed passing through the Midlands.

In this post I wish to examine the meanings that add-on participles can express, to offer some advice on the use of a preceding comma, and to explain how these participles differ from -ing words after by.



The following examples illustrate different uses of add-on participles:

(a) The disease spread widely, inflicting much suffering.

(e) Trains are likely to be delayed passing through the Midlands.

(f) The disease spread widely, transported by people’s clothing.

(g) The king died, leaving no successor.

(h) The king died, throwing the country into confusion.

The differences might be described as follows:

In (a) two extended events happen together. The first is hinted to be a cause of the second. Before the participle, one could add in the process (see 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2). The participle seems more likely to be “present” (with -ing) than “past” (with -ed or irregular equivalent).

In (e) the participle event is likely to take more time than the main one. Before the participle (which seems likely to end in -ing), one could add when.

In (f) the event expressed by the participle clarifies how the main event happens. Both -ing and -ed participles seem equally possible (an -ing alternative to transported by could be travelling on).

In (g) two instantaneous events happen together. Both -ing and -ed participles seem equally possible (an -ed alternative to leaving no could be deprived of a).

In (h) the participle event is a result of the main one. Unlike in (a), it happens after the completion of the main event. Before the participle, one could add thus.  The participle seems likely to end in ing. More about this usage is in the post 32. Expressing Consequences.



The example sentences above show that a comma is almost normal before an add-on participle. Only sentences like (e), where the add-on participle can be paraphrased with a when statement, seem exceptional. However, sentences like (f), which use the participle to say how something happens, might also sometimes lack a comma, like this:

(i) The pilgrims stand praying in the square.

I would suggest that the main difference made by a comma in sentences like (f) and (i) is the amount of focus given to each half. In (f), the half with the main verb and the one with the participle have equal focus – the sentence is communicating two equally-important messages. In (i), however, the absent comma places the focus more on the participle half, the idea of praying. The fact that the pilgrims are standing is not at all what the sentence is trying to communicate.

In (i) the participle part is almost like an adverbial, linking closely with the verb stand. It may be relevant that in (f) the participle is separated from the main verb by the adverbial widely, which makes it less likely that the participle will itself be interpreted like an adverbial. Further examples of focus determining grammar choices are in the posts 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition56. Comparing with “Like” and “Unlike”,  64. Double Conjunctions,  99. When to Use “whether … or …” and 104. Referring to Data with “As”.


Add-on participles like praying in (i) are not the only -ing form that can express the idea of “how”; -ing verbs placed after by do the same (see 73. Saying How with “By” and “With”). They are gerunds rather than participles (see 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”) but is their meaning different? Compare these two modifications of sentence (f):

(j) The virus spread widely, travelling on people’s clothes.

(k) The virus spread widely by travelling on people’s clothes.

I think that two kinds of “how” are involved here. The one without by, the participle use, is an action accompanying the main verb action (spread). The one with by, on the other hand, is an action happening before the main verb action, and enabling it to happen.

The difference is clearer with sentence (i). The participle action praying happens at the same time as the main verb one stand. We could not say by praying because that would be saying that the praying preceded the standing and enabled it to happen – clearly nonsensical.

These two types of “how” – enabling and non-enabling – are probably just another form of two types that mainstream grammars commonly call “means” and “manner”. The first is very typically associated with the preposition by (see 73. Saying How with “By” and “With”). The second is sometimes expressed with an adverb (e.g. enthusiastically), sometimes a preposition phrase (with enthusiasm – see 85. Preposition Phrases and Corresponding Adverbs), and can often be paraphrased using the words in a(n) … way. Add-on participles with the “how” meaning may not be so different.


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