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Participial Phrases: Important Concepts on the SAT Writing / ACT English section

Today we'll discuss a concept which students often find tricky on the SAT and ACT: principial phrases. After you understand what a principial phrase is, and become aware of a simple principle regarding them, answering these questions should be easy.


What is a participle? A participle is a verb which functions as an adjective. To illustrate, the participle is underlined in each of the followed sentences:

  • The singing girl walked in the meadow.

  • The cut flowers lie on the table.

  • The yawning baby rolled over.

Sing, cut, and yawn are all verbs, but in the above sentences they function as descriptors for girl, flowers, and baby respectively.


Participial phrases

Participial phrases are clauses with a principial verb. They're often non-essential, meaning that if you remove the participial phrase, the sentence still makes sense. In the following sentences, the participial phrase is underlined:


  • Running in the schoolyard, the boy didn't notice the dog that was following him.

  • Shivering in the cold, the woman waited for her sister to arrive at the appointed time.

  • Obtained over a decade ago, the document has escaped notice in the bustle of war.



Participial phrases can appear at the end of sentences as well, but such cases are less relevant for our purposes.


Now that we've laid out the background information, let's articulate the principle needed in order to solve SAT/ACT questions involving this topic correctly.


The principle for participial phrases

The first noun after the participial phrase should be the one described by the participial phrase.


Let's look at an example:


'Ever since reading the book, Sylvia has been interested in the movie.'


This sentence follows the principle we delineated above. The person who read the book is apparently Sylvia. Sylvia is also the first noun in the phrase that follows: 'Sylvia has been interested in the movie.'


Now let's look at a different form of the same sentence:


'Ever since reading the book, the movie has interested Sylvia.'



This sentence doesn't follow the participial phrase principle. The first noun to follow the participial phrase is 'the movie' - but 'the movie' isn't the one reading the book. In SAT / ACT terms, this sentence is not written as well as it could be.

Now let's look at some examples.


Examples

Example #1

'Having become outspoken in the interview over what he saw as the company's unethical policies, his colleagues ignored him, and even his family grew cool over what they saw as a lack of discretion.'


Question #1

A) NO CHANGE

B) his colleagues and family ignored him over what they saw as his lack of discretion.

C) his colleagues ignored him and his family grew cool, over his lack of discretion.

D) he was ignored by his colleagues, and felt his family grow cool over what they saw as a lack of discretion.


(Note for those unfamiliar with how SAT Writing & Literature / ACT English questions are presented:


All, or part of, a sentence in the passage is underlined. Of the answer options, you're meant to pick the answer option which, when inserted in place of the underlined section, would make for the highest quality English. On the ACT English section, there will be a question before the options: 'Choose the best answer.' The SAT simply presents the options, without a question beforehand.)



Note that in the participle phrase of this example, 'he' is the person who had become 'outspoken in the interview.' Therefore, the first noun in the phrase after the participle phrase should be 'he'. Instead, the subjects of that phrase are "his colleagues" and later, "his family."


The only option which replaces the underlined phrase, in a way such that 'he' is the subject, is D). That's the answer.


Example #2

'Although certainly making its mark in the field of agriculture, scientists remain divided over whether the new technology can have a lasting influence in other areas of pursuit, such as medicine or nuclear weaponry.'


Question #2

A) NO CHANGE

B) the new technology leaves scientists in doubt as to whether it can have a lasting influence in other areas of pursuit, such as medicine or nuclear weaponry.

C) scientists remain divided about whether the new technology can affect medicine or nuclear weaponry.

D) scientists are still unsure as to whether the new technology can influence other areas of pursuit, such as medicine, or nuclear weaponry.


The subject which has 'made its mark in the field of agriculture' is obviously 'the new technology', and not 'the scientists.' The only option where 'the new technology' begins the phrase is option B).




Example #3

Despite envisioning exactly such an outcome over a decade ago, Malloy's warnings and dire predictions were still not hailed for the feat of uncanny foresight they had proven to be.


Question #3

A) NO CHANGE

B) Malloy's warnings and dire predictions were still unhailed for their uncanny foresight.

C) Malloy was still not hailed for the uncanny foresight he'd proven to have.

D) Malloy's dire outcomes went unhailed for their uncanny foresight.


This example is a little tricky. Note that the participial phrase refers to Malloy: he's the one who 'envisioned exactly such an outcome.'


You may think that the next phrase features Malloy as the first noun, but you would be mistaken. Let's look at the beginning of the phrase:


'Malloy's warnings and dire predictions were still not hailed.'


The actual subject here is 'warnings and dire predictions.' 'Malloy' here serves not as a noun, but rather as a descriptor of the warnings, etc.


The only option which replaces the current subject with Malloy himself is C), 'Malloy was still not hailed for the uncanny foresight he'd proved to have.' This is the answer.

For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.


Happy learning,

Tova