Must a participial phrase always modify the subject of a sentence, or can it modify the object?


A participle phrase can modify the subject or the object. For the latter, this page gives the example

Delores noticed her cousin walking along the shoreline.

The cousin is doing the walking. And for those who deny present participles in English, try

Delores noticed her cousin soaked to the skin by the rain.

  • I saw a helpful tip from that page: Placement: In order to prevent confusion, a participial phrase must be placed as close to the noun it modifies as possible, and the noun must be clearly stated.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Jun 1 '11 at 10:58
  • Since the question was of the form "A or B", a Yes/No answer can be misleading (and indeed I was composing a diatribe against this answer before I went back and realised that I agreed with it: I was reading it as "No, a PP cannot modify the object").
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 1 '11 at 16:22
  • @Colin: Sorry - I will change the first word
    – Henry
    Jun 1 '11 at 17:24
  • At the heart of the question: "Dolores noticed her cousin walking along the shoreline." The PP modifies cousin, fine. "Walking along the shoreline, Dolores noticed her cousin." The PP modifies Dolores, fine. "Dolores noticed her cousin, walking along the shoreline." With the comma added, I would read the PP as modifying Dolores (even if the sentence is awkward or flat out grammatically incorrect).
    – Zan700
    Dec 30 '18 at 23:57

It might help to give an example of what you mean by "participal phrase", but generally speaking the modifiers of a noun are agnostic as to the function of that noun in the overall sentence. So both of these are possible:

[A man wearing a blue sweater] came into the room.

I saw [a man wearing a blue sweater] as he came into the room.

  • Thanks, what about a participial phrase that is separated from the main clause by a comma, e.g.: "Bundled in an oversized fur coat, Nanook speared the walrus". Is it possible to say: "Nanook speared the walrus, drifting innocently on the current."?
    – Ilana
    Jun 1 '11 at 11:20
  • Yes, in principle even if the phrase is in apposition as in these examples, it can modify subject or object. A feature of English is that it has a strong tendency for modification of its not linearly next to the modifying phrase (e.g. "I saw the girl at the station who I'd seen on previous occasions"), and this tendency is quite strong in cases of apposition such as those you mention. But in principle, the apposed phrase can modify subject or object (and modify either irrespectively of its place in the sentence). Jun 1 '11 at 16:04
  • Something garbled in the second line of your comment, Neil.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 1 '11 at 16:22
  • Hmmm yes it's true and I can't edit it now. Think I meant something like "...for modification of an element even if that element is not linearly next to the modifying phrase". Sorry for the confusion and hope it was clear enough from the examples in any case. Jun 1 '11 at 23:02

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