Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 44

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 44: Too Many Participle Phrases

Rushing to her computer, Katie tries not to spill her coffee. She is late to write a very important forty-fourth installment in the “Most Common Writing Mistakes” series. She looks for her coaster, rooting through her desk drawers. Finally, relieved by the protection of the precious particle board of her desktop from permanent circular stains, she plops down in her desk chair, index finger fidgeting with the worn “N” button on her keyboard. But now what? She frowns in thought and, peering up at the Snoopy plush atop her computer, admits, “Gosh, Snoopy, I have no idea how to start this article.”

Fortunately, all that rushing, coaster hunting, fidgeting, and peering is the perfect intro to a post on what is, all too often, a grammatical sticky point: participle phrases–or as those of us with clumsy tongues prefer to call them: “-ing” words.

Participle phrases, in themselves, are not a writing mistake. The participle phrase is a necessary and important grammatical technique. The problem is that writers frequently end up using them incorrectly. Wordplayer Loretta Kern recently messaged me on the subject:

A friend of mine had an editor friend critique some of her work, and the feedback confused both me and my friend…. The debate is over “-ing” words. To use or not use??? Editor says do not but we thought that it evoked the sense of action.

This is a fair question. When are participle phrases acceptable–and when are they not? Are they the best technique to evoke a sense of action? Will using them make your book unacceptable to agents and editors? Let’s find out!

The Participle Phrase: What Is It?

First, we need to figure out precisely what the participle phrase is. A participle (sans the “phrase”) is a verb used as a noun or a modifier (e.g., setting sun, broken window). A participle is the foundational word within the participal phrase. Ohio’s Sinclair Community College defines the participle phrase:

The participial phrase is always used as an adjective phrase to modify a noun or pronoun. It includes the participle together with its modifiers, objects, or predicate words

In the opening paragraph of this post, the following are participle phrases:

  • Rushing to her computer
  • Rooting through her desk drawers
  • Relieved by the protection of
  • Index finger fidgeting
  • Peering up at the Snoopy plush 

(Note that not all of these phrases actually end in “-ing.” Participle phrases come in both present- and past-tense varieties.)

The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Use a Participle Phrase

The important thing to understand about the participle phrase is that it indicates concurrency. Whatever is happening in the participle phrase is happening at the same time as the main action in the rest of the sentence. This is why authors so often select participle phrases as a way to evoke that “sense of action.”

Participle phrases have the ability to keep our prose running along at breakneck speed. That’s (usually) a good thing. What’s not so good is that sometimes the participle phrase can create an illogical, and even downright confusing, progression of events.

The Right Way

Grabbing her phone, Josie heads out of the house.

Josie careens out of the driveway, scattering gravel behind her tires.

Scared of the cop she passed, Josie slows down.

In these sentences, the concurrency created by the participle phrases totally works. Everything Josie’s doing in the participle phrases in these sentences is something she’s capable of doing at the same time as her actions in the main part of the sentences.

She can grab her phone as she’s walking out of the house.

She can scatter gravel as she’s careening.

She’s very likely to be slowing down as she’s experiencing fear of the cop.

The Wrong Way

Tying her shoe, Josie heads out of the house.

Josie hits the accelerator, gravel scattering behind her tires.

Relieved to have escaped notice, Josie passes the cop.

These sentences, however, have Josie performing feats of impossibility and are good examples of why we need to be wary of participle phrases.

Unless she’s hopping on one foot, she’s not likely to be tying her shoe as she’s heading out of the house. She can’t do both all at the same time. First, she ties her shoe, then she leaves the house. They’re two distinct actions, which means they need to be connected by a conjunction.

Likewise, gravel can’t scatter behind her tires until she hits the accelerator. First, she accelerates, then she scatters gravel.

And there’s no way, she can know she’s escaped the cop’s notice until after she’s passed him. First, she passes him, then she experiences relief.

These sentences might all be more logically written as follows:

Josie ties her shoe, then heads out of the house.

Josie hits the accelerator, and gravel scatters behind her tires.

Josie passes the cop and is relieved to have escaped notice.

Should You Avoid the Participle Phrase Even When It’s Not Technically Wrong?

Sometimes, the disruption of linearity  caused by incorrect participle phrases is very noticeable, as it is when Josie tries to tie her shoe and walk out of the house all at the same time. But sometimes the disruption is subtler: there is only going to be a split second’s difference between the cause of Josie’s hitting her accelerator and the effect of the gravel scattering behind her tires.

Sometimes for the sake of your story’s pacing, it’s worth bending the rule of cause-and-effect just a little bit. But more often than not, it’s worthwhile to put some distance between yourself and participle phrases even when they’re not technically incorrect.

The restrictions of concurrency aside, participle phrases don’t tend to convey the same one-two punch you’ll get by connecting your sentence’s two actions with a conjunction. Again, the effect here can be very subtle, but it’s powerful. Which is punchier?

Hitting the thug in the face with her purse, Josie reached for her phone.

Josie hit the thug in the face with her purse and reached for her phone.

The former gives you a smooth, almost elastic, flow of action. Even assuming Josie is performing both actions at once, the second version gives you a rat-a-tat of forward motion. This is even more important when the cause and the effect are both present in the same sentence:

As the thug was grabbing for her purse, Josie hit him in the face.

The thug grabbed for her purse. Josie hit him in the face.

Pow pow! Pacing your sentences in this way also creates a stronger sense of showing readers what is happening in real time, rather then telling them about events.

Except for those instances in which you’re wanting to create the effect of simultaneity, your prose will usually be stronger without the “-ing words.” A linear flow of actions has the potential to create a more vibrant impression than does the indication of concurrent action found in a participle phrase. Once you understand the function of the participle phrase–as well as its strengths and weaknesses–you’ll be much better equipped to use it (or not use it) to its full advantage in your writing. Even Snoopy agrees on that!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you aware of how you use participle phrases in your writing? Tell me in the comments!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 44

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Good information as always.
    Those that really have me laughing are the dangling participles. Here, off the top of my head …
    Helping writers become authors, you really ought to pay attention to these points.
    Generally, I watch for too many -ing words on a page, and look for ways to find a stronger way to say it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I decided not to address dangling participles in this post, but I agree: they’re hilarious egregious!

  2. My first draft of my first manuscript had a ton of “ing” sentences. I used them as one way to vary my sentence structures. I thought I was being clever.

    Fortunately, I had a mentor who pointed out this horrible tic, and now I rarely, if ever, use them at all.

    If you look at the writings of award-winning literary authors, you will rarely see them, probably because they’re often very inelegant (the ‘ing’ sentences; not the authors).

    This is an important post, given the number of a manuscripts I’ve reviewed that fall into the ‘ing’ sentence trap. I hope all your followers read it and take it to heart.

    This is a great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Inelegant” is a great way to describe the problem of sloppy participle phrases. Even when used correctly, they’re just not often going to be the most artistic choice.

  3. I faced the same problem as S.J. Dunn in my last manuscript. I, too, had a habit of inserting -ing sentences whenever I wanted to vary sentence structure. Until, well, when I observed the sentence structure of many of my favourite books, and saw that they rarely, if ever, used participle sentences. This sent me off guard, but to tell you the truth, I had suspected some problem of flaw between my sentences much earlier. I just didn’t know where the problem lay.

    Awesome article, which helped clarify this common mistake further. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One exercise I used to do was copying out pages of my favorite books. It’s a great technique for making you really aware of how your favorite authors are (and aren’t) putting sentences together.

  4. Timely post for me. I was pondering the use of ‘-ing’ words after seeing it added to the list of words to avoid in writing. There are so many pitfalls, I’ve begun to wonder what words I can use. Good news, after reading this, I think I’m doing ok with my ‘-ing’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Said”–you’re always safe with the word “said.” 😉

      Seriously though, it’s true there are infinitely more ways to do something wrong than to do it right. That’s what makes writing challenging and fun!

  5. This is extremely helpful. I am pretty sure if I go back and count the “ing” words in even one page of what I have written so far, there will surely be one too many.

    By the way, you have a wonderful site. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Participle phrases were a habit I had to work long and hard to overcome. They’re one more way in which many of us are unnecessarily complicating our sentences. So you’re not alone!

  6. June Sullivan says:

    Fantastic post. LOVE these posts covering writing mistakes. Will spend sometime today looking for this tic in my own writing. I imagine there’ll be some cleaning up to do.

    • June Sullivan says:

      Egads – in a thank you regarding writing mistakes I typed some time as one word. Will my mistakes ever end?

      • Don’t fret. We’re all susceptible to “Muphry’s” law. 😉

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Hah. I’ll forgive your typos if you’ll forgive mine. 😉 Glad you’re enjoying the series!

        • I recently discovered that there really IS s “Muphry’s” law (misspelling intentional). Good article in Wikipedia: Muphry’s law is an adage that states: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”[1] The name is a deliberate misspelling of Murphy’s law. 😊

  7. After reading this, I have the desire to read through all of my writings to see if I have done participles correctly.

  8. Gary Kacmarcik says:

    The cop hands the ID back and calls the next person in line.
    Relieved to have escaped notice, Josie passes the cop.

  9. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    I’m planning to do a post on tenses one of these days.

    As for the comment subscription, unfortunately, that’s not something that the platform offers me any control over.

  10. thomas h cullen says:

    What is it that shows reality? The whole issue could boil down to this question perhaps.. Just what is it that “shows reality”?

  11. KM, I’m a big fan of your blog and your plotting and outlining books, which I often recommend to my editing clients as well as refer back to myself. However, I feel I have to say something here. I’ve been seeing some of the same advice you give here about participial phrases pop up at random intervals for the last year or two—the implication seems to be that, because it’s the present participle that’s involved, there’s somehow a requirement that the relationship the participial phrase indicates must be one of simultaneity.

    The problem is, it just isn’t true. It’s not a rule. Note that when I say this, I don’t mean this the way someone means it when they say “there’s no reason not to split infinitives or distinguish between further and farther or avoid dangling or misplaced modifiers”—in that case, the argument is that a traditional rule isn’t properly founded in actual usage, is arbitrary, and so on.

    What I mean is something else: this supposed rule is not now, nor has it ever been a feature of English grammar, descriptive or prescriptive or otherwise. I haven’t even been able to find any advice along these lines that’s older than a few years, nor any that appears in any reliable grammar, usage or linguistics text, and when I asked my editors’ groups about it last year, in search of the source of the bad advice, none of the members there even knew what I was talking about or had ever heard of such advice being given. One did, however, point me in the direction of a very dry but extremely relevant-to-this-discussion linguistics text, Free Adjuncts and Absolutes in English: Problems of control and interpretation, by Bernd Kortmann, from which I’m drawing a lot of what I’ll go on to say below.

    There’s nothing whatsoever technically wrong in a sentence like “Tying her shoe, Josie heads out of the house.” The fact that the two events cannot logically be simultaneous is not a problem.

    In fact, present participial phrases are what Kortmann describes as “semantically indeterminate”—that is, they can mean different things, in terms of the relationship between the phrase and what it modifies, depending on context.

    As Kortmann explains, such constructions are “unmarked for tense and mood. Constructions without a perfect-participial head also neutralize the aspectual distinction ‘imperfective/perfective (progressive/non-progressive)’” (p. 1). That last bit means, in linguistics jargon, that present participial phrases not only don’t tell us tense, they don’t tell us whether an action was completed (unless the perfect participial, e.g., “having done something,” is used.
    Moreover, “whether the relationship holding between these constructions and the matrix clause [that is, the clause modified by the participial phrase] is a temporal, causal, conditional, etc., or an adverbial one at all, needs to be determined for each individual instance” (1). So not only is simultaneity not required, but “temporal” in general is only one type of relationship these constructions can indicate.

    One such relationship is, indeed, simultaneity, but there are numerous others, including:

    *Anteriority (“Reaching into the drawer, he took out a knife”);

    *Posteriority (“She left her apartment, slamming the door”)–Note that the placement of the participial phrase is what tends to distinguish anteriority from posteriority; compare “He sat down, crossing his legs” with “Crossing his legs, he sat down”–the latter is illogical because no logical relationship between the phrase and the matrix clause, temporal or otherwise, comes to mind;

    *Conditionality (this one’s a bit trickier to understand, but for example, in a sentence like, “He was a terrible husband, putting it mildly,” the idea of the modifier is something like “if we are to put it mildly”);

    *Instrumentality (“Using the knife, he cut his meat”)

    *Manner (“The little girl walked to school, skipping all the way there”)

    *Accompanying circumstance (“She stood in the hallway, wearing a red dress”—this is superficially similar to simultaneity, but not the same, as you wouldn’t say “she stood there at the same time as she was wearing a red dress”—it wouldn’t be logical);

    *Concessivity (meaning something like “although,” as in “Knowing the consequences, she broke the rule anyway”);

    *Causation (“Knowing the consequences for jaywalking, he crossed with the light”);

    *Result (“He ran very fast in the footrace, coming in second”);

    *Purpose (“He slowed down, avoiding a person he didn’t want to run into”).

    The examples above are my own, but all the semantic categories are from the Kortmann text. Any errors are my own, not Kortmann’s, but in general, none of these types of constructions are technically “incorrect” in any way, according to either traditional standards or contemporary ones.

    Of course, whether they’re stylistically preferable in a given context is a different question, and a much more subjective question. I’d very much like to know the ultimate origin of the supposed simultaneity rule, however.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thank you for this, Eliza! I appreciate your thoughts here and definitely don’t disagree with the bulk of what you’ve said. However, the few points on which I would digress would be, first, that just because an idea within language is modern (although I believe most classic authors also use participle causality, for the most part, instinctively or otherwise) doesn’t mean it isn’t worth adhering to.

      Second, I completely agree that, whether you want to count this guideline as a “rule” or not, it’s definitely one of those that’s made to be broken. Most of my “incorrect” examples are ones an author could easily get away with, as long as they weren’t used in excess and as long as they’re being chosen because, for whatever reason, the non-causal participle serves the prose better than otherwise.

      Finally, whether you want to count this as an absolute *rule* of good writing, I absolutely believe that adhering to linear cause and effect in a fiction narrative is going to be the clearest, most rhythmic, and best choice 90% of the time.

      • Thanks for replying, KM!

        I agree a lot of authors rely too much on these constructions, possibly because they sound more literary than how people generally talk (?), to the point where practically every sentence is like “Doing X, he did Y. Seeing Z, he did A.” (For some reason, these phrases are always at the beginning of sentences, even though they can go in the middle or the end. And the corollary is where an author links a bunch of actions only by “and,” like “He got out of bed and put on his slippers and walked to the bathroom and turned on the light and…” Both are bad when overused, IMO.)

        The funny thing is, with all these potential semantic relationships like causation, instrumentality, etc., I don’t think anyone sees a problem. Possibly it’s because, in something like “Using his knife, he cut the cake,” or “She went to school, skipping the whole way there,”or “Being an editor, she liked to read grammar texts,” even though simultaneity isn’t the type of relationship implied, it isn’t contradicted temporally either–he was, after all, using his knife at the same time as he was cutting the cake, and she was skipping while going to school, and the other she was being an editor while she liked to read grammar texts. So it seems “anteriority” and “posteriority” are the only meanings anyone wants to take issue with.

        I agree a rule can be “modern” and still valid–for instance, the generic masculine is no longer widely accepted, for obvious reasons having to do with social changes in the twentieth century. But in this case, I think perhaps someone at some point misunderstood a rule, and the misunderstanding got a signal boost to become a phantom rule. For instance, *past* participial phrases do in fact signify that one event happened before another (such as “Finished with her dinner, she washed the dishes” or “Tossed down the stairs, the ball bounced”), so it may be that someone inferred a nonexistent corollary with present participial phrases.

        “Punchiness” is a separate issue, though. When you say “Punching the thief in the face, she reached for the phone” or “As she punched…she reached for the phone” or “After she punched…she reached for the phone,” the stylistic issue is the same in all three cases. The author is burying the interesting action of punching in a subordinate clause or in a modifier, as if reaching for the phone is really the main event and punching is an afterthought. That not being the case, it makes little sense to treat it that way grammatically.

        And yet something like “She punched the thief in the face, then grabbed her purse, rummaging around for her phone” seems fine to me, because the rummaging really isn’t the main event…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Ultimately, this is totally a stylistic choice. Whether authors consider it a “rule” or not, we all know rules are made to be broken in fiction, depending on the narrative voice and the needs of the immediate sentence. If the intent of the sentence is served better by using a participle phrase, then there’s certainly no reason *not* to use one. But even though the effect is subtle, linear participle phrases are a valuable tool for writers to be aware of. Ultimately, it’s the subtle things in prose that make all the difference.

          Which is to say: I think we disagree on the “letter” of the law here, but not the “spirit.”

          Thank you for your very thought-provoking comments!

    • I tried to post and couldn’t. Trying again (very trying!)

      Because someone can think (and many other things) and do something at the same time, I don’t object to some of the ‘ing’ combinations, but I still find such sentences inelegant.

      Try to visualize a guy crossing the room and screwing in a light bulb at the same time, however. I can’t.

      Isn’t making our scenes visual one of the challenges we writers face?

  12. Looking for “ing” words is a step in my editing process. After reading your article, I again reviewed my latest chapter (the 10,000 words are now down to 9,780 words because of editing) and did not find any issues with participle phrases of the “ing” variety, although I did discover a few more needed edits.

    The problem with this editing step is the number of words that end with “ing.” In this chapter, there are 323 occurrences of 172 unique words ending with “ing.” That makes for tedious editing. “Ing” words occur so frequently, I end up re-reading most of the document, which is why I discovered a few more needed edits.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One trick I like to use when hunting for specific words or phrases when editing is to do a global search/replace, and replace all the instances with all-caps versions. That way, I can easily spot them and evaluate them while reading along.

  13. I like a participle phrase for a variation in sentence structure but you’re right, it can go too far. The “concurrency” concept is a good one to keep in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      And there’s definitely nothing wrong with a little variation. It’s just that this is one of those “less is more” situations.

  14. Oh, man! You have no idea how timely this article is! I was recently noticing that just about Every. Single. One. of my sentences has a participle phrase, and I was like, “What on earth?” Yeah. I started out using a couple, then somehow morphed into using them all the time. Argh! Must rewrite my entire manuscript! Sob! (But it will be so worth it…) 🙂 Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!

  15. Jim Arnold says:

    Katie, I believe that some parts of my latest story is missing that “something” I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I think you just hit the nail on the head.

    As always, Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent! Participle phrases are one of those very subtle tweaks we can make that can change everything without seeming to change anything.

  16. Does this non-rule guideline apply to dialog, too? Or is primarily for narrative?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dialogue has its own rules, in that it gets away with breaking *all* the rules, depending on the voice of the character. In general, yes, it’s good to adhere to proper structure in dialogue as in narrative, but don’t let that hold you back from letting characters talk how they need to talk.

      • I guess I am just having trouble applying this. Every time I think I have a grasp on just what a participle phrase is, I try to practice on one of my published manuscripts, and I’m overwhelmed with how many words end in ING. (Over 2900 in a 70k word ms.) Am I that bad? Not every word ending in ING is a participle phrase, right? I diligently removed most instances of passive voice (was…ing) and I still have that many ING words. I was professionally edited by “real” editors in the trade. Did they let me down?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          No, not every word ending in “-ing” is a participle (some will be gerunds, among other things), and among even those that are, not all need to be axed.

          • Thanks for those words of hope. It’s still a daunting task to sort through it all, but I reckon by the time I’m done I’ll have a great grasp of what makes a participle phrase. 🙂

        • Kristi (and everyone else who has been told incorrectly that ‘was…ing’ = passive voice):

          Not only does ‘was…ing’ NOT equal passive voice; it is impossible to create passive voice with ‘was…ing’. ‘Was…ing’ indicates the past progressive tense; it has absolutely nothing to do with voice. ‘Is…ing indicates present progressive tense; it also has nothing to do with voice.

          Passive voice requires certain specific things: a sentence subject that is the recipient of the action, the use of a form of ‘to be’ plus the PAST participle (‘ing’ forms are present participles, even when used as part of a past-tense formation) of a transitive verb, and either the use or the implication of the word ‘by’. Even in a sentence such as ‘The homework was being eaten by the dog when I entered the room,’ which is passive voice, of course, the word ‘being’ has nothing to do with making it passive. ‘Being’ merely puts the action in the progressive tense; ‘was … eaten by’ is what makes it passive.

          And sorry, but if your so-called editor (friend or not) tries to tell you that ‘was…ing’ equals passive voice, fire your editor. He simply has no idea what he is talking about.

          There are an ever-increasing number of writing websites (and fortunately, this is is NOT one of them; Katie knows what she is talking about,) that perpetuate the false notion that ‘was…ing’ (or even worse, just any form of the verb ‘to be’,) indicates passive voice. Please read Katie’s “To Be or Not To Be: In Defense of the Passive Voice” and “Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: How to Use Both to Get the Most Out of Your Writing” for reasons and occasions the passive voice sometimes should be used. And Katie, would you please consider doing a more extensive post on what passive voice actually is and how it is properly formed? Your articles that I cited should be enough, but in the face of all the mis-information being spread, it appears that there are many people who need further, more detailed instruction.

  17. I will have to find the time to sit and read ALL of your articles, as it’s becoming increasingly clear that I have forgotten almost everything I ever learned about English Grammar. Or maybe (I’m 71) my brain is chucking all the wrong stuff out in the bathwater?

  18. Karen Ingle says:

    Perfect timing! I have a big edit ahead of me, and participle phrases are on my hit list.

  19. Just read through the comments, and they left me smiling.
    Now, I can’t say it left me smiled. I CAN say I smiled all the way. But I prefer that it left me smiling. How did it leave me? Smiling. An adverb, not a participle phrase.
    The *single* *thing* folks seem worried about is …ing. Unfortunately, it’s tough to global search for …ing, seeing that ‘thing’ is a noun, and ‘bring/cling/sing’ are verbs, and the …ing permutations and combinations are endless.
    I think perhaps it’s easier to fix this as we write, rather than search for …ings as we edit.
    I do both. Smiling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Important point. “-Ing” words in themselves aren’t a problem. Participle phrases aren’t even a problem. It’s only when we’re using those phrase incorrectly that we need to perk up our ears.

  20. Someone must have said this to me a long time ago, because I feel guilty every time I write one of these phrases, even if I think it’s necessary.

    Fortunately, after reading this piece I believe I’m using them properly, but those are the sentences I struggle with the most, trying (<= there you go) to get the image of the scene across as clearly and efficiently as possible. (adverbs!)

    Here are two sentences from my most recent chapter.

    I found my way to the dirt lot nestled between two buildings on the North Side. After parking, we walked back to the entrance, and as we approached the elderly man on the folding chair he held out his hand and said, “Two bucks.”

    I found the lot, I parked, as we were walking, when we got close enough the old man stuck out his hand and asked for two dollars.

    As their pitcher Steve Carlton took his warm up throws, I again turned towards my cousin. “This guy is going to make the Hall of Fame…”

    Two things happening at the same time, the first as a back drop, but it was that setting that directed the subject of the conversation.

  21. This post was a serious wake up call. I never realized that I have a bad habit of using “-ing” words in my writing. I’m currently a senior in college, and not one of my creative writing professors have put focus on “-ing” words. As I was reading this post I wanted to run up to one of them and say, “Why didn’t you tell me I was doing this wrong?”

    I think it’s time for me to edit a lot of things…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As others have commented here, it’s not so much that non-linear participle phrases are absolutely *wrong* as it is simply that they’re usually sloppy writing.

  22. In our daily speech we use the -ing words constantly. It’s almost automatic, as shown by many comments in this blog.
    Our daily speech runs over into our writing. If it didn’t, we would not be writing naturally. So it really is a matter of (a) recognition, (b) judgment, and (c) balance.
    Good to have the problem identified.

  23. Thanks for pointing out the concurrency restrictions that should govern the physics of my action description. I also appreciate the discussion of how sentence structure can change the perception of pace. When I read the title of this post (actually I listened to the podcast) I didn’t think the content would hold my attention 😁. Try this for size, “Defying the physics of participle phrases”. Thanks for great content.

  24. Catherine H. says:

    Thanks for this post. I wasn’t even aware that this was a problem until now. Welp, editing here I come.

  25. I LOVE your posts about grammar! They are great reminders . Thank you!

  26. I can see “The thug grabbed for her purse. Josie hit him in the face.” as the first line to a story…

  27. Thanks again. Always helpful! Suggestion: A couple of times I was confused at which examples you were recommending. For me, I would have understood it sooner if you would have appended a “CORRECT” and “BETTER” in front of the examples. It seemed at times you were recommending the participial constructions and the pacing. Thanks, K.M., for taking the time to explore this.

  28. Perfectly timed as always. I just sent in my chapter one for an editorial review and this was one of the main complaints. I didn’t understand why-until I read this article. Thanks for the VERY helpful info, Katie!

  29. Crimson Knight says:

    I’ve been doing a little non-serious, “for fun” writing, and I’ve been noticing that I use participle phrase a *lot*, so this is a very timely post (that I somehow missed until now). I think I use them more than I should because of my love/hate relationship with “and” & “then.” I fear that using them too much would feel lazy and that they could become crutches… but I guess participles could easily become crutches instead! I’ll have to watch that.

    I’ve gone back and changed a few of the participle phrases (“Albert grunted, leaning further back in his seat.” -> “Albert grunted and leaned further back in his seat.”), and I think it does make the narrative flow better now that I’ve swept some under the rug. Thank you for this post! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good observation: pretty much *everything* in writing can become a crutch if we let it. That doesn’t mean that any of these things are necessarily wrong in themselves. We just need to use all things “in moderation.”

      • I’d like to add that it doesn’t have to be *all or nothing at all*. If we mix and match these overused constructions, we can add variety to our sentence structures, and adjust the wording for more pleasing rhythmic flow.

  30. I never know when your newsletter is going to pop up in my email chain, but I’m always excited when it does. I put aside an hour to pour through it and the advice is always on target. Thank you for taking the time help us budding authors!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The e-letter goes out (or is supposed to, at any rate!) on the first and fifteenth of every month. Glad you’re enjoying it!

  31. Really good advice! Another mistake that some writers–especially beginning writers–make is that they don’t read enough. Here’s a post I just wrote about that very topic:

    http://noeasywriter.blogspot.com/2015/10/if-you-want-to-be-writer-you-must-do.html

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. As Stephen King says: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

  32. Sarah Riv says:

    How did I just discover this series? I’ve been following you forever too. I have to make up for lost time. Where’s that subscribe button?

    I feel like this article was written just for me. I’m notorious for using the particle phrase. It flows so much easier than the alternative. “The thug grabbed her purse. She punched him in the face.” sounds choppy to me like something is missing to connect the two sentences. I’ve also been trying to vary my sentence structure so it isnt just a bullet point of events. I’ll have to keep reading to find a better solution to my problem. Good thing this is a long series lol.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One of the toughest things about writing this series is illustrating the problems out of the context of an overall book. In some instances, that example would definitely be too choppy for inclusion. In others, that tight pacing would be perfect. And in others, the participle phrase *would* be acceptable. You’re absolutely right about the essence here being the challenge to refine sentences to fit the individual scene and the paragraph, rather than trying to conform *all* sentences to a certain model.

      BTW, I generally post a new installment in this series on the first Monday of the month. You can find all the past posts here.

  33. Hi,

    I am having a hard time with this one. Mostly because I use these phrases to get away from always starting a sentence with a proper name or he, she and I. I write in the first person. Do you have any suggestions for this?

    Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes one of the reasons authors get stuck with the repetitive sentence pattern of “subject/verb” is because they’re telling too much instead of showing–a flaw that participle phrases don’t solve but rather just attempt to disguise.

      For example: “Cindy smelled something. She thought it smelled good. She looked around the kitchen.”

      Nothing inherently wrong with that, but you can spice it up *and* mix up your sentence structure by showing instead.

      For example: “Cindy sniffed. A sweet, yeasty smell filled the kitchen. Cinnamon bread? Please, yes! On the counter by the stove, a golden loaf steamed within its silver pan.”

      • I find myself using ‘as’ and ‘while’ to show that two things happened concurrently, in describing these kind of scenes.

        “As Cindy approached the kitchen, an increasingly stronger sweet, yeasty scent filled her nose. Cinnamon bread? Please, yes! She poked her head through the doorway and spotted, on the counter by the stove, a golden loaf steaming within its silver pan.”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          These are also legitimate options, although it’s important to remember that the concurrency inherent in “as” and “while” are just as suspect, for the same reasons, as are participle phrases.

  34. CAROLINE HUMES says:

    This is a great article. I have been aware of my fondness for participles for some time and I am now trying to vary my sentence types and construction. I think I tell too much rather than show, like you described in a previous comment. It is nice to see an article on the more technical side of writing.

  35. Excellent post! An even more common problem for me is overusing the Past Progressive tense “He was drifting in and out of sleep when he saw the thug.”). Which also happens to be another “-ing” thing.

    I can usually replace 2/3 of these suckers in editing, but 1/3 are helpful and stay in for showing continuing action.

    Wonderful series on “Most Common Writing Mistakes.”

  36. Margaret Adelle says:

    I’ll admit this is one of my greater writing vices (right on top of forgetting to describe characters in any detail and using the word “turn” way too much). I use it most often when a character is speaking. For instance:

    “How pitiful,” Gregor sneered, clenching his fists at his sides.

    Not technically incorrect, as you can do many things with other body parts while speaking. But after awhile, I realized that my characters could hardly speak without doing something else at the same time. So it’s on my list of mistakes to look out for.

  37. Love your articles, as always. I’m a fan of the Podcast as well. I may have crummy Internet speed here at McDonald’s, but the article was doing a lot of readjusting while the share buttons atop the copy loaded. Just had to hang in there till everything stabilized. No biggie, but food for thought. Thanks again for the article!

  38. I had NO idea about this. It makes perfect sense but I was never taught this in school or anything. Now I know what to watch for when I edit and what I write from now on. Thanks.

Trackbacks

  1. […] A friend of mine had an editor friend critique some of her work, and the feedback confused …read more […]

  2. […] October 19, 2015 Craft 0 comments Open link […]

  3. […] Too Many Participle Phrases, from Helping Writers Become Authors: Participle phrases are something that I need to look out for in my own writing. For some reason, I tend to include them more than I should. It was good to have this reminder. Excerpt: “The participle phrase is a necessary and important grammatical technique. The problem is that writers frequently end up using them incorrectly.” […]

  4. […] story feel like that movie: a collection of slow and stuffy gifs. It’s like the overuse of participle phrases. It’s not a bad thing to use, but too much is simply too […]

  5. […] can read a transcript of today’s installment of her ‘Most Common Writing Mistakes’ series here. The topic was ‘Too Many Participle Phrases.’ I’ll confess, I had no idea what a […]

  6. […] been fun editing for the whole participle phrase thing.  Now, in addition to writing at least three more scenes, I’d like to expand […]

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