Crews worked at containment, keeping the oil from spreading, but their efforts weren't effective.

I was asked whether the word 'keeping' was a gerund or a participle.

I said that it was a participle and the whole phrase in italics describes 'Crews'.

However, another another person argued that it was an appositive phrase. So this person believes it is a gerund.

What do you think it is? In other words, do you think that the phrase renames the word 'containment' or the phrase describes 'Crews'?

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It is an appositive noun phrase. If it were supposed to modify crews, it should follow crews immediately. If you're right, then it's a misplaced participial phrase.

good question.
But particple phrases can be placed away from the word it modifies.

Look at the bottom part of this link, and it explains you can.

Give me your thoughts after reading this:

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/627/02 /
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I find nothing in the link you sent which supports your opinion. Furthermore, the article clearly states that a participle should be placed as close as possible to the noun which it modifies.

Beyond that, keeping here would not work as a participle modifying crews because, in fact they were not 'keeping' but rather 'trying to keep', since the second part of the sentence tells us they were not successful.
Sorry, read post below.
This is directly copied and pasted from the website: (The bold below is is most relevant)

Punctuation: When a participial phrase begins a sentence, a comma should be placed after the phrase.
  • Arriving at the store, I found that it was closed.
  • Washing and polishing the car, Frank developed sore muscles.

  • If the participle or participial phrase comes in the middle of a sentence, it should be set off with commas only if the information is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
    • Sid, watching an old movie, drifted in and out of sleep.
    • The church, destroyed by a fire, was never rebuilt.

    • Note that if the participial phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence, no commas should be used:
      • The student earning the highest grade point average will receive a special award.
      • The guy wearing the chicken costume is my cousin.

      • If a participial phrase comes at the end of a sentence, a comma usually precedes the phrase if it modifies an earlier word in the sentence but not if the phrase directly follows the word it modifies.
        • The local residents often saw Ken wandering through the streets.
          (The phrase modifies Ken, not residents.)
        • Tom nervously watched the woman, alarmed by her silence.
          (The phrase modifies Tom, not woman.)

        • See the very last example? The participle phrase modifies Tom which is at the beginning of the sentence.

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Also, an appositive 'equals' the noun it is in apposition to. It simply renames the noun.

Here, 'keeping the oil from spreading' doesn't seem to rename it. In fact, it describes what the crew are doing, or more sprecifically, what the crew are failing to do. This is how I see it, anyway.
I see it as an appositive, describing what the word "containment" means, which would be useful for those not used to the specific use of that word in this situation.

Although I agree at times the particple phrase can move away from what it modifies, plunking it down in the middle of a sentence like that is not a likely choice, and if that was the writer's intention (to use it to modify "crews") then he made a poor choice in placement, since two native speakers read it as describing containment, not modifying crews.
O.k., I think I have done something pretty silly.

I have re-read the sentence and now agree that it is an appositive. I think I misread what 'containment' meant in this sentence and couldn't understand how it was an appositive.

Thank you both for putting me straight and helping me realise that I shouldn't try and analyse sentences at 2.00am, haha.

But yes, that site does confirm that a participle phrase can be placed away from the word it modifies, although this is irrelevant now. And yes, it would be a horrible sentence if it was modifying 'Crews.'

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