Writer's toolkit

12th September 2003 at 01:00
If you're not sure what a participle is, read on; to find out more, check out our new website for key stage 3 English teachers. More on that below.

But first, what are participles and - more importantly - why should you bother with them?

Participles are forms of a verb that can be used rather like adjectives.

Here are two examples: lThe propellor was turning in the wind.

lThe propellor was damaged by the wind.The verbs "turning" and "damaged" are participles, so you can replace them with an adjective: The propellor was loose.

The Romans called them "participles" because they "participated" in the characteristics of adjectives as well as verbs. (Not a very good name, you say. Ok, we agree, but it does make some sense.) Why do they matter at KS3? Because they're one of the growth-points of writing at that stage. Not in examples like the ones above - every five-year-old uses these all the time - but in more complex sentences like these: The girls selected for the team were all tall.

The girl running down the road fell over.

Running down the road she fell over.

Her hair flying behind her, she ran down the road.

Notice how you could expand each of these into a full clause with a finite verb: The girls who were selected for the team were all tall.

The girl who was running down the road fell over.

When she was running down the road she fell over.

While her hair was flying behind her, she ran down the road.

In all these examples the participle is in a slimmed-down subordinate clause which makes the full version look rather clumsy. The reduction is possible because the participle itself shows that its clause is a subordinate clause so there's no need for any other signal such as "who" or "when". As the Romans saw, the participle does two jobs at the same time.

Very efficient - a nice bit of grammar design.

Participle (or participial) clauses are the next stop on the road to writer-dom (after finite subordinate clauses, which follow co-ordinate clauses, which follow separate simple sentences). The fact is that most Year 7 pupils hardly ever use them, except the most ambitious writers who are already experimenting and will be using them like old hands by Year 9.

Our role is to encourage everyone to do the same.

And the website? This explains technical terms such as "participle" and helps you to see them as tools to be developed at KS3. The glossary gives a quick (and official) thumbnail sketch, and the separate units give more explanation and detail, as well as examples of pupil writing, suggestions for teaching and some self-test exercises. Try it - www.phon.ucl.ac.ukhomedickttaKS3.htm

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VISchool, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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