Revisiting subordination by verbals

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At a recent writer’s conference, a literary agent was talking about signs of weak writing, something we talked about in a recent post on subordination by reduction. Weak writing can occur when write a sentence explaining something you have just written. Often these sentences contain the verb is, are, was, or were. The agent was also pointing out weak constructions to watch out for using forms of the verb be with other verb forms. Unfortunately, she identified a present participle as a gerund. Both are –ing forms of verbs, but present participles are the ones used to form verb tenses, while gerunds functions as nouns. To remind yourself of the difference, read this post on subordination by verbals.

In the past few posts we have been looking at complex sentences and the 3 dependent (or subordinate) clauses that form them: adverb, adjective, and noun. When we subordinate a clause, we express it in a word group that is less than a sentence (also called an independent clause). We can further reduce word groups to create other devices of subordination as seen in this graphic below:





Subordination can enhance our meaning by making the relationships between our ideas clearer because we are subordinating a fact or idea to another. In this post, we will examine other useful devices for subordination, namely verbals.

Verbals are useful devices for subordination. In traditional grammar, a verbal is a word derived from a verb that functions in a sentence as a noun or modifier rather than as a verb. In English 3200, Joseph Blumenthal calls verbals “double-duty words, because they have crossed the boundary line and become another class of word without losing its identity as a verb.

A verbal

retains properties of verbs


takes on other functions as adjectives, adverbs, & nouns.

There are four types of verbals: present participles, past participles, gerunds, and infinitives. Verbal phrases are is a word group based on verbals.

present participle

used as adjective

verb + ing


used as noun

verb + ing

past participle

used as adjective

verb + ed


used as adjective, adverb, or noun

to + verb

Subordination by Present Participle

A present participle is an adjective formed by adding –ing to a verb. For example, the present participle form of the verb win is winning.

For example, sentence a. contains a regular adjective; sentence b. contains the verbal adjective:

  1. We have a good team.
  2. We have a winning team.

Present participles, because they retain properties of verbs, may take a direct object or a subject complement, which no ordinary adjectives can do.

I found Roy reading a magazine. (Magazine is the direct object.)

I found Roy feeling lonesome. (Lonesome is the subject complement.)

In addition, a present participle may be modified by an adverb:

The lawyer defended her client, believing firmly in his innocence.

Subordination by Past Participle

Past participles are verbs turned into the past form and used as an adjective to modify nouns and pronouns:

The cracked ice, The fallen rock

The past participle of a verb is the same form you would use after have; for example, have cracked. It shows that something has been done to a person or a thing. Most past participles end in –ed (entertained) when they are formed by regular verbs. But irregular verbs have other endings like because of their irregular verb forms: -d (told), -en (broken), -n (torn), and –t (bent).

It is easy to change a sentence to a past participial phrase when its verb consists of two words—some form of be followed by a past participle. Consider this example:

This is a picture of our town. It was taken from a plane.

Then you drop all the words that precede the participle—taken.

This is a picture of our town. (It was) taken from a plane.

This is a picture of our town taken from a plane.

Participle phrases are phrases with their related words that are also used as adjectives to modify nouns and pronouns.

The dog, shivering with cold, came into the house.

The woman, annoyed by the smoke, changed her seat.

The present participle phrase in the first sentence modifies the noun dog.

The past participle phrase in this sentence modifies the noun woman.

In changing some sentences to past participle phrases, we lose a noun in making a participle phrase. When we drop the subject in the participle phrase, we must substitute the subject for a pronoun in the main statement—if it is not already there—by putting this noun back at the beginning of the main statement.

The roads were covered with ice. They were treacherous.

Covered with ice, the roads were treacherous

Most past participle phrases can be shifted about.

Annoyed by the smoke, the woman changed her seat.

The woman, annoyed by the smoke, changed her seat.

The woman changed her seat, annoyed by the smoke.

Punctuating Participles

Put a comma after any participle phrase that comes at the beginning of a sentence:

Thinking the paint was dry, I sat on the bench.

When a participle phrases ends a sentence, look for the word it modifies. If it modifies the subject at the other end of the sentence (the beginning), set it off with a comma.

Mr. Ling was in the back yard, hoeing his garden.

Subordination by Gerunds

A noun that is formed by adding –ing to a verb is called a gerund. We can change any verb into a gerund this way: cookcooking; stealstealing; studystudying.

Gerunds are used to talk about actions. We can’t talk about walked, but we can talk about walking. To talk about actions, we must give them names, and we do this by adding –ing to verbs, thus changing the verbs into special nouns called gerunds.

Because present participles are also formed by adding –ing to a verb, you need to decide whether an –ing word is a present participle or a gerund. To do this, see how the –ing is used in the sentence.

If the –ing word is used as an adjective, it is a present participle.

She went through the swinging door.

If the –ing word is used as a noun, it is a gerund.

Swinging makes me dizzy.

Subordination by Infinitives

An infinitive is the basic form of a verb from which all other forms are derived. They are the forms of verbs most commonly listed in the dictionary. The infinitive is usually formed by combining the base verb form with the preposition to; for example, to walk, to drive, to sleep.

Infinitives are the one verbal that can be used as either an adjective, an adverb, or a noun.

I want a chance to work.

adjective – what kind of chance?

Larry ran to catch the bus.

adverb – ran where?

Her favorite sport is to swim.


Since infinitives are used as nouns, they can be interchangeable with gerunds:

Gerund: Walking is good exercise.

Infinitive: To walk is good exercise.

As we have seen, subordinating ideas or facts, whether by subordinate clause or by verbal, can show relationship and emphasis in your meaning. Using verbals can also help to vary sentences and improve writing.

(Resource for examples: English 3200)

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