Why Present Participial Phrases are Evil
What the heck is a participle? Does it have something to do with snack food, because a lot of snack foods are evil, and have you heard McDonald’s can make you and your kids fat? Seriously, in simplest terms, a participle is a verb form that can also stand as a noun or adjective. Right now we want to concentrate on the present participle, which are verbs that end in “ing”. The ingy verbs I want to talk about today are the ones that occur at the beginning of a phrase, and frequently, evilly, at the beginning of a sentence, i.e.:
Moaning with ghostly relish, Sir Pennywhistle knocked a book off the shelf and startled the new owner of the mansion.
Just because I said so doesn’t make it evil, right? You don’t have any reason to take my word for it, your friendly neighborhood Grammar Wench, but what about the words of Renni Browne and Dave King, who wrote the much-recommended tome Self-Editing for Fiction Writers? In the chapter entitled “Sophistication,” they ascribe overuse of ingy words to hack writers and profess that “awareness of them when revising will help your work look like that of a professional rather than an amateur” (156). We can’t have that, now, can we?
So now for the justification part, aside from what Browne and King think — which is worth hearing, but they also think F. Scott Fitzgerald could have learned a thing or two from them.
I think most everyone will agree that overuse of anything, especially snack food, is bad. And it’s a fact: amateur writers do tend to start sentence after sentence with ing phrases, also known as participial phrases. An editor’s or agent’s reading ear will pick up on that pattern quickly, right before she sets your labor of love in the form letter rejection stack. This is to be avoided, ie:
Gasping in terror, Amelia clutched her sheet to her pillowy bosom and looked around for the source of the awful noise. Finding nothing unusual in her room, she lay back down and closed her eyes. Hearing the awful noise yet again, she grabbed the phone and dialed 911.
See what I mean? Logically, grammatically, these are things that could have happened in the story, and in a proper sequence. I even put the commas in the right places for you. But doesn’t your ear pick up on the repeated inging? Even if you separate it or vary it every couple of sentences, you’ll still get caught.
Part of the logic behind Remi and Browne’s dislike of the ingy phrase is because it “tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. And so if you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing” (156). Oooookay, you say. Now in Wenchian English. Um. Dude. Makes you look feeble. Just don’t, okay?
Another, easier to grasp reason to avoid present participial phrases is because they often suggest items are happening at the same time that cannot actually be simultaneous, i.e.:
Jumping out of the bed, Amelia ran to the tall oaken door of her room and tugged on the handle.
Can Amelia actually jump out of bed WHILE she runs to the door of the room? Don’t think so. And if you think this is just too picky to worry about, well, keep in mind your potential editor also has a manuscript or five on her desk in which somebody did worry about it…and clean it up. A revision might be:
Amelia jumped out of bed, ran to the door (etc.).
And if you’re trying to vary your sentence structure (good puppy) and not start all of them with your heroine’s first name, you could write something like:
After she jumped out of bed, Amelia ran to the door (etc.).
Another crime attributable to them: participial phrases at the beginning of sentences have been known to lend themselves to dangling participles. None of the above sentences qualify, because the ings all describe the noun that comes right after them, but what about:
Discovering the handle was locked, the door wouldn’t budge despite Amelia’s frenzied scramble.
If you insist on using a participial phrase, make sure the noun that comes right after it is what it actually refers to. I don’t think the door was discovering much of anything, do you? Amelia’s the one doing the discovering — discovering her story’s being told by a writer over-fond of ings so it will never see publication.
Remi and Browne also vilify the “as” clause as a tool of the hack writer, which might be one of your first instincts when revising your ings. One might change:
Materializing in front of bedroom door, Sir Pennywhistle was startled to find a warm and frantic human body already there, yanking on the handle.
As he materialized in front of the bedroom door, (etc.).
I suppose Sir Pennywhistle could materialize and be startled at the same time, and I would definitely be startled as he materialized myself, but make sure you avoid overusing the “as” clause, especially when beginning a sentence because it stands out more.
Note: Did you notice how I slipped in some ingy action at the end of the example sentence? It’s a little more palatable there instead of at the beginning, though one wouldn’t want to abuse the privilege.
As you’ve been poring over my article, you may have noticed that I used all sorts of ing verbs. There’s one in the previous sentence: poring. That one’s actually a straight present participle verb, not the potentially evil phrase. Then there are ingy phrases used as nouns (aka gerund phrases), like:
Using his ghostly ability to cop a feel allowed Sir Pennywhistle to discover that Amelia was one bodacious babe.
The subject is “using (etc.)”. The verb is “allowed”. Sir Pennywhistle is a perv. The gerund phrase is the subject, not a participial phrase, which is more evil than a noun phrase or Sir Pennywhistle’s appreciation of Amelia’s bounty. Another example:
“My goodness!” Amelia said. She quickly realized [that being felt up by a ghost was practically orgasmic], so she invited Sir Pennywhistle to materialize in her bed.
The subject of the noun clause which beings with “that” is “being (etc.)” and the verb is “was”. Just be aware that the ingyness of such can still trip up a reader’s ear if overused, especially in the first example.
Here’s a page with more gerund examples, though none involve ghosts and sex: http://grammar.uoregon.edu/phrases/gerundP.html
So, to sum up: Don’t start many sentences with “ing” phrases. Don’t start many sentences with “As” phrases. Don’t knock being felt up by a ghost.
Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.