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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.”


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 that 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:

Examples 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.

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What participial phrases 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 a subordinate clause.  This is a particularly tempting mistake, because it is regularly used in colloquial English and thus may sound correct.  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 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 main 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 these two common mistake patterns, you will be able to crack some of the hardest GMAT SC questions.


Practice question

Here’s a practice question that features some participial phrases.

9) The Atlantic Ocean


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40 Responses to Participle Phrases on the GMAT

  1. Satyajit May 9, 2018 at 1:04 pm #

    Can past participle modify a far away noun ?

    Due to the slow-moving nature of tectonic plate movement, the oldest ocean crust is thought to date from the Jurassic period, formed from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and lasting 200 million years.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 14, 2018 at 9:27 am #

      In the pattern you showed me, the past participle word “formed” does indeed clearly modify the distant noun “ocean crust.” It’s important to understand, however, that the ability of a past participle verb to modify a distant noun depends on context. “Formed” clearly modifies “ocean crust” because the closer noun, “Jurassic period” represents a stretch of time, rather than a physical object that can be formed. The use of formed would be more confusing if that part of the sentence read:

      …the oldest ocean crust is thought to date from the same time as the Mariana Trench, formed from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and lasting 200 million years.

      In that case, there’s some real ambiguity. On the one hand, “ocean crust” is the subject of the preceding clause, so it seems like “formed” might be modifying “ocean crust.” On the other hand, “Mariana Trench” is the closest noun to “formed,” and it seems like a trench could also be physically formed.

  2. Vivek February 15, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    Hi Mike,
    Although Jefferson opposed slavery…
    The cathedral built…

    The first sentence has opposed in past participle form but is still correct. However, the use of built in second sentence is incorrect .
    Am I wrong in saying that opposed is not in participle form?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 16, 2018 at 1:19 pm #

      No, you’d actually be CORRECT to say “opposed” is not in participle form. “Opposed” is actually a past tense verb, describing the act of the sentence’s subject, “Jefferson.” A true participle is a word that is normally a verb but is not being used as one. “Built” fits this description, since “built” is an adjective describing the Cathedral.

      In other words, a past tense verb acts as a true verb, describing the action of the subject of a clause. But a past participle verb doesn’t actually function as verb grammatically, instead working more like an adjective.

  3. Avinash November 17, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    She played the lottery yesterday. Is played not a verb here? This is given in Manhattan sentence correction as valid verb

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 19, 2016 at 3:02 am #

      Hi Avinash,

      Yes, the word “played” is the verb in this sentence. Remember, basic past verb forms and past participles look identical in almost all cases. I hope that clarifies! 🙂

  4. Mike November 16, 2016 at 5:26 pm #


    Could I keep “built” as it appears in the sentence and make the change to the participle “serving” and remove “thereafter”, so the full verb is “served”.

    built in the first half of the thirteenth century, served as the example par excellence for Gothic…”

  5. Minnie October 8, 2016 at 5:55 pm #

    Hi, Mike! Thanks for your excellent work!
    But I am confused with this sentence.
    The Olympic Games helped to keep peace among the pugnacious states of the Greek world in that a sacred truce was proclaimed during the festival’s month.
    (B) world, proclaiming a sacred truce during the month of festival

    IS “proclaiming” here correct? Because this participlee phrase can act as adverb modifying the action “keep peace among the pugnacious states”. However, the OG explanation said it is wrong because “it is not clear who would be doing the proclaiming”.
    Do we need to know the doer of the proclaiming ?
    And can this phrase modifies the action here?
    Thank you !

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 20, 2016 at 8:58 am #

      Because the only subject preceding “proclaiming” is the Olympic games, we do need some clarification on who is doing the proclaiming. Otherwise, it sounds like the Olympic games themselves are making a proclamation. This is very confusing, since games can’t proclaim things, only people can.

  6. Dj March 30, 2016 at 4:49 am #

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

    Can you say what is the verb for the main clause and subordinate clause here

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 30, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

      Hi DJ,

      Sure! 🙂

      Main clause verb: owned
      Subordinate clause verb: opposed

      I hope that helps!

  7. SG March 26, 2016 at 8:19 am #

    This will be correct right ?

    Opposing slavery on philosophical grounds, Jefferson nevertheless owned a plantation with several hundred slaves.

    Removing although takes the constraint of subordinate clause. Please advise. Thnx

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 19, 2016 at 9:31 am #

      You’re correct, SG. In this case, “opposing slavery on philosophical grounds” is not a clause, but is instead a phrase– an adjective phrase that describes Jefferson. Phrases don’t need to to have a noun + verb structure; only clauses have that constraint.

  8. Nitin February 14, 2016 at 11:03 pm #

    Hello Mike,

    This one is really a great post. appreciate your hard work


  9. Jeff January 3, 2016 at 7:21 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    In the example of the ‘the Chartres Cathedral’, you mentioned changing ‘built’ to ‘was built’, but if we eliminate all the fluff in between, the sentence would read ‘the Chartres Cathedral built in the first half of thirteenth century,…….’. Why would this be wrong?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 8, 2016 at 9:41 am #

      Hi Jeff,

      Sorry for the late reply! 🙂

      We must change “built” to “was built” because if we simply say “The Chartres Cathedral, built in the…” we are describing it further but there is no core verb to the sentence. Think of this as an appositive–it does not contain the core verb necessary to make a complete sentence. This example is structured similarly: “My sister, Mary-Beth, named valedictorian.” Both “Mary-Beth” and “named valedictorian” describe “my sister” further, but there is no verb in the sentence as it stands. If we take away the description, this means the sentence is: My sister. That is not complete! If I change “named” to “was named” I can then make a sentence. This is a simpler version of what is happening in our cathedral sentence.

      I hope that helps! 🙂

      • Yeshu Aggarwal February 20, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

        Hello there! Should we also not change ” thereafter serving” to “thereafter served” to maintain parallelism within the sentence?



        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 22, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

          Hi Yeshu!

          If we had:

          After a fire in June 1194 damaged the earlier, smaller church, the Chartres Cathedral… was 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.

          If we wanted to say “thereafter served”, we would need a coordinating conjunction:

          After a fire in June 1194 damaged the earlier, smaller church, the Chartres Cathedral… was built in the first half of thirteenth century, and thereafter served as the example par excellence for Gothic cathedrals throughout Western Europe over the subsequent centuries.

          • Yeshu Aggarwal February 23, 2016 at 12:26 am #

            Perfect! I get it. Thanks 🙂

  10. Beena November 25, 2015 at 4:52 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Quick Question:

    What is the difference between the following 2 sentences:

    1. Jane often saw Ken, walking the streets late at night.
    2. Jane often saw Ken walking the streets late at night.

    Is it always the case that a participial modifier always modifies the main subject of the sentence before the comma – so in this case in sentence 1. “walking” modifies Jane not Ken.

  11. 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 MᶜGarry
      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 🙂

  12. 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 MᶜGarry
      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 🙂

  13. 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 MᶜGarry
      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 MᶜGarry
          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 🙂

  14. 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 MᶜGarry
      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 🙂

  15. 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 MᶜGarry
      Mike July 18, 2013 at 10:03 am #

      Yes, that’s correct.
      Mike 🙂

  16. 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 MᶜGarry
      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 🙂

  17. 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 MᶜGarry
      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 MᶜGarry
          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 MᶜGarry
              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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