Grammar Lesson of the Day: Participles
I ask my college freshmen, “How many of you studied English grammar in school?” They all raise their hands. “What’s a participle?” Embarrassed looks all round. No one knows. “No, you don’t know grammar.”
A participle is a verbal form used as an adjective – used, that is (for my students also do not really know what an adjective is), to modify or restrict the meaning of a noun or pronoun. Participles are extraordinarily useful chess pieces. Imagine, say, a cavalry bishop, able to move diagonally like a bishop, but also to jump pieces, like a knight. Pretty salty warrior, he. Participles are like that. They’re adjectives, but because they are verbal, they can take their own direct objects, and they can be modified by adverbs and by adverbial phrases and clauses:
John stood alone in the auditorium, defiantly singing the national anthem while everyone else sat in stunned silence.
All that material following the comma is one long participial phrase, with an adverbial clause embedded in it. The participle is singing. It modifies John: it describes him. It is a present participle, but not because John is singing now. He isn’t singing now. He was singing then: he was singing at the same time when he was standing. That’s all that the present participle implies; it’s present, in the context of the time of the main clause. Because singing acts also as a verb, it can take a direct object: the national anthem. Verbs invite adverbs, words that answer likely questions about an action or a state of being: When? Where? How? Why? How much? To what degree? When was John singing? The adverbial clause answers: while everyone else sat in stunned silence.
There’s a notion out there in The Land of Education that studying grammar really isn’t all that important. Sure, there are a couple of rules to observe – rules which the teachers mainly get wrong, but we’ll let that pass – but what difference should it make, whether a student knows what a participle is? You don’t learn to write by mastering the definitions of grammatical entities. You don’t learn to write by parsing sentences.
There is a speck of truth in that. You learn to write by emulating good and great writers – which the schools don’t encourage either, but we’ll let that pass too. Still, just because something is not strictly necessary in all cases doesn’t mean that it won’t be greatly beneficial in most. If you want to be a great painter, you should learn from the great painters of the past. But those painters themselves got their fingers dirty and wet in paints. They knew their material. Michelangelo hung around the marble quarries at Carrara. He knew from the broad muscles on his back to the most sensitive flesh of his fingertips what the kinds of marble were and what one could do with them. It seems to me downright foolish to suppose that anyone but the rarest genius could ever become a master of words while knowing nothing about words, and a craftsman of sentences while knowing nothing about sentences.