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Participle Phrases on the GMAT

Understand this common grammatical structure, on GMAT SC questions! 


Present participles

When we take a verb and stick the “-ing” ending on it, we change it into the present participle, which can function as a noun modifier, i.e., as an adjective.  Examples: the flowing river, the talking horse, the flying trapeze.  A participle can take the role of an adjective, but it still can retain its other “verb qualities”, such as taking a direct object.  This means, we can create long modifying phrases for nouns called “participial phrases.”  Examples

1) The man, seeing the fallen tree in the road ahead, ….

2) The student, thinking that time was about to run out on her exam, …

3) The goat, looking at the delicious looking fruit on the other side of the fence, …

In all three of those examples, the underlined phrase is a participial phrase.  Notice, none of those three is a complete sentence — all three of them are of the form [noun][noun modifier], so they all need a main verb to make a full independent sentence.


Past participles

Verbs also have past participles: this is the form of the verb that would follow “have” or “had” in, say, the past perfect tense.  For ordinary verbs, the past participle is identical to the past tense, and just involves the “-ed” ending, but several common verbs are irregular.  For some irregular verbs, the simple past tense forms and the past participle forms do not follow the “-ed” patterns, but are still the same; for other past participle verbs, all three forms (present, past, past participle) are different.  Examples of irregular verbs in which the past and past participle forms are the same.

Example of irregular verbs in which all three forms are different.

(For more on the lie/lay distinction, see this post.)  All of these past participles, in addition to being used in constructions involving the past perfect and other tenses, can also be used to construct participial phrases.  Here are some examples of participial phases with past participles.

4) The man, seen on nationwide TV on Super Bowl Sunday, ….

5) The large sum, given to the struggling diabetes research center, ….

6) “God Bless America”, sung during the “seventh-inning stretch” at Yankee Stadium, …

In all three of those examples, the underlined phrase is a participial phrase using the past participle.  Again, notice, none of those three is a complete sentence — all three of them are of the form [noun][noun modifier], so they all need a main verb to make a full independent sentence.


What participial phrase can and can’t do

The big idea is: participles and participial phrases are modifiers.  They act as an adjective, modifying any noun in the sentence, or they can act as an adverb, modifying one of the main verbs of the sentence.  By contrast, a participial phrase cannot usurp the role of the main verb of a sentence or clause.  It’s actually a bit ironic that this verb form, a participle, is allowed to act as an adjective or adverb, but not as a verb!

One of the most common mistake patterns on the GMAT Sentence Correction is substituting a participial phrase for the full noun + verb requirement of subordinate clause.  This is a particularly tempting mistake, because it is regularly used in colloquial English, and thus it may sound “correct” to your ear.  Here’s an example of the mistake

Jefferson example

By GMAT SC standards, that sentence is 100% wrong.  Yes, it may sound correct to your ear: this is one of the instances in which your “ear” is most likely to betray you on the Sentence Correction.  The subordinate clause, beginning with the conjunction “although”, needs a full noun + verb clause of its own.  Here’s a corrected version of that sentence:

7b) Although Jefferson opposed slavery on philosophical grounds, he owned a plantation with several hundred slaves.

Now, both the subordinate clause and the main clause have their own required noun + verb structure.  Again, I cannot caution you enough about this subtle mistake: expect to see it all over the GMAT SC section.

A related mistake, also of the participle-instead-of-verb variety, occurs when a sentence is so long, so complex, that one simply can lose track of what the main subject is and what the man verb is.  Consider the following incorrect sentence:

8) After a fire in June 1194 damaged the earlier, smaller church, the Chartres Cathedral, the first church to reach the truly soaring heights that we now associate with high Gothic architecture, built in the first half of thirteenth century, thereafter serving as the example par excellence for Gothic cathedrals throughout Western Europe over the subsequent centuries.

Wow!  There’s certainly a ton of information in that sentence, but unfortunately, there’s no verb.  The main subject “the Chartres Cathedral” is followed by participle modifiers (“built” and “serving”), but it simply has no verb.  This is another classic mistake pattern the GMAT loves: make the sentence so long and complex that folks don’t realize a main verb is missing.  To correct this sentence, we would have to take one of those participles, say “built”, and change it to a proper verb form: “was built.”

If you understand both the proper uses of a participial phrase and the these two common mistake patterns, you will be able to unlock some of the hardest GMAT SC questions.


Practice question

Here’s a practice question that features both the Fab Four and some participial phrases.



About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

20 Responses to Participle Phrases on the GMAT

  1. brijesh September 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    Please tell me the difference between past tense verb and past participle. I am confused a bit. From your own article
    All of these past participles, in addition to “being used” in — what is role of used – is it showing past tense??

    • Mike
      Mike September 16, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

      Dear Brijesh,
      The “past tense” refers to a tense of a full verb, a verb that could be the verb of a main clause. Only full verbs have tenses. A past participle describes action in the past, but technically, a participle does not have a “tense,” because it’s not a full verb. It’s only verb-form used as modifier. Participles and infinitive and gerunds come from verbs — they are verb forms — but none of them are full legitimate verbs that could be the center of a clause or sentence.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  2. siddhartha August 21, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    Dear Mike,

    I think not all subordinate conjunctions require a clause. Some subordinate conjunctions such as “although” might also take adjective or adjectival phrases (participles). Pl refer gmat prep question “Polio, although eradicated in the United states…”


    • Mike
      Mike August 21, 2014 at 10:57 am #

      Dear Sid,
      I’m happy to respond. :-) We are on very tricky grounds here. IF the section in the subordinate clause can be construed as a clause with short SV omitted (e.g. “it is“), then it is fine. In that official sentence, the short SV “it was” is implied and omitted — “Polio, although [it was] eradicated in the US …” — so implicitly, a clause follows “although.” Compare the mistake in OG13 SC#74, choice (E).
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  3. Brijesh June 7, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    Dear Mike,
    ‘Participles works as adverb,’ will this also be applied if participle-ing is in passive voice. As participle-ed is derived from passive voice and always modifies preceding noun, even if comma is present, i have some doubt when ‘ing version’ will be in passive and used as adverb.

    Please help,


    • Mike
      Mike June 8, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

      Dear Brijesh,
      I’m happy to respond. :-) The present participle (verb + -ing) is always active, never passive. The past participle (verb + -ed) is always passive, never active. Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Brijesh June 8, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

        Dear Mike,

        Participle – ing if used in passive modifies the preceding noun or noun phrase in the same way as participle-ed form does?

        Participle – ing, or any such modifier, can modify more than one noun if connected by conjunctions like and, or, etc. and this totally depends on context ??

        And, one thing for sure, Magoosh blog, and especially your responses, are just impeccable. I will surely try and recommend my friends whoever is planning to give this G-EXAM.

        • Mike
          Mike June 8, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

          Dear Brijesh,
          My friend, please learn the correct terminology. This will help you ask better questions. The present participle and past participle both act as noun modifiers, and may appear before or after a noun. Once again, the present participle is ALWAYS active, NEVER passive.
          Participles can modify two or more nouns in parallel, as all noun modifiers can do.
          Thank you for your praise.
          Mike :-)

  4. brijesh May 28, 2014 at 11:50 am #

    First of all,Thanks for this great chapter.
    I have a doubt
    He is going to court asking for help.
    In this sentences asking is modifying court or he?

    • Mike
      Mike May 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Dear Brijesh,
      I’m happy to respond. :-) That definitely modifies “he.” You see, when we say, “to court,” it is clear that we are talking about that only as a destination, not as a noun in and of itself. If we wanted to talk specifically about the noun, we would have to say, “the court.” Even if we used the definite article in this sentence, it still would be clear that “asking” refers to “he.” If we really wanted to modify “court”, we would have to say, “He is going to the court that asks for help.”
      My friend, I think you need to READ. The best way to develop an ear for the English you will need on the GMAT is to read. Read an hour each day, over and above any GMAT preparations. Read hard, challenging material in English. Here are some recommendations:
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  5. Alpha July 17, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    Firstly, thanks a lot for your posts.

    In the above example, will it be right to say as below?

    Although he was wearing a shirt displaying the Eiffel tower, the man was actually from Hungary.


    • Mike
      Mike July 18, 2013 at 10:03 am #

      Yes, that’s correct.
      Mike :-)

  6. dhler July 5, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I find your article very helpful. I have no doubt that there is no such structure as “although doing/done….” in correct answers. However, I find a question in OG 12 that uses this structure. Q35, Page 664, OG 12.

    35. Along with the drop in producer prices announced yesterday, the strong retail sales figures released today seem like it is indicative that the economy, although growing slowly, is not nearing a recession.

    The underlined part is “like it is indicative that”.

    So here, “although growing slowly” is the mistake you have mentioned in your article.

    I really feel that the GMAT team is so careless to make the mistake they warn test takers against. I want to know your opinion on this error.

    • Mike
      Mike July 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

      Dear dhler,
      I guess I would say: remember that grammar is not mathematics. In mathematics, there’s perfectly correct and completely incorrect, black and white with no ambiguity. In grammar, it’s not quite as clear. There are something things that are perfectly correct, and there are other things that are quite clearly incorrect, but there are also things that are shades of gray. I would call this “dark gray”, but not “black” — this structure is not favored, but it’s not an out-and-out mistake. In some sentences, it’s hard to figure out how to avoid this structure without making the whole sentence much more wordy and awkward. At the same time, when the GMAT actually tests this structure in an underlined portion, it will never be correct.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  7. Nishant Mathur September 9, 2012 at 7:15 am #

    HI Mike,

    Thanks for the wonderful explanation on Participles.

    Although wearing a shirt displaying the Eiffel Tower, the man was actually from Hungary

    Why do we need the modifier that is modifying “the man” to have both subject and verb.

    • Mike
      Mike September 10, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      Dear Nishant: The word “although” is a subordinate conjunction. It is always used to introduce a subordinate clause, and like any clause, a subordinate clause has to have a full noun + verb structure.
      Mike :-)

      • sri October 19, 2012 at 12:05 am #

        Hi Mike,
        If although is followed by a adjective phrase modifying the noun then it is acceptable in gmat. In the above sentence ‘wearing..’ is a adjective phrase describing the man so i think it is acceptable in gmat.

        Another example :Although exhausted from a long day’s work, Josh still came to help me move my furniture.

        Please correct me if I am wrong.


        • Mike
          Mike October 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

          Both of those are incorrect. This is precisely the mistake I am discussing here. The word “although” must be followed by a full [noun]+[verb] clause, but something that could stand on its own as a complete sentence. The phrase “exhausted from a long day’s work” could not be a complete sentence by itself. You can read more at this blog:

          Does all this make sense?
          Mike :-)

          • Tushar August 21, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

            Mike, why cant we say that “he was” is implicit here.? Just the way u made in “although (it was) eradicated..”

            • Mike
              Mike August 22, 2014 at 11:37 am #

              Dear Tushar,
              I’m happy to respond. :-) The previous example I had, about the man wearing the shirt, was not a good example of what I was trying to demonstrate. I have replaced it with the sentence about Thomas Jefferson. Do you understand the problem in sentence 7a now?
              Mike :-)

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