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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. Catherine H. says:

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

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

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.”

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.”

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. I read an article that was against using “then” as a conjunction the way you do in your example. My friends have different opinions on if it is acceptable or not.

    https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2012/04/jonathan-franzen-comma-then/

    Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Interesting thoughts, but personally I have zero problem with “, then”–as long as it’s used appropriately.

Trackbacks

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

  2. […] 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.” […]

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. […] 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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