This post has been in my draft folder for a long time. It’s one of the most common issues I see in texts I read or proofread, and it’s also the one that more easily sets me off. I’m talking about the overuse of participial phrases or, as you probably know them, -ing verbs. They are everywhere, and although they can be used correctly, they usually aren’t.
This is the pattern, and once I mention it, you’ll probably recognize it: “Character A did X, Y-ing something else,” or “Protagonist said, twirling his mustache.” The participial phrase is the entire, well, phrase, “twirling his mustache,” not just the word twirling. Grammatically, they usually work as an adjective, modifying a noun or pronoun (like the subject.) I was surprised when I discovered that because I had intuitively thought they worked as adverbs, saying how something was done (How did he say it? Twisting his mustache) but in fact, they modify a noun, here, “Protagonist.” Basically, it’s like saying “The Protagonist, he-who-is-twisting-his-mustache, said.”
There are two types of participial phrases, present, which use -ing participles or “verbs”, and past participle, which end in -ed verbal forms. I have encountered fewer problems and issues with past participle because few people use them anyway, so I won’t talk about them here.
The main issue with present participial phrases is that they are used in a way that creates temporal paradoxes. This is an example from the novella Cold Steel and Secrets: A Neverwinter Novella, Part III:
“He lunged across the room, placing the point of his sword over Karion’s heart.”
I assume most people will be “I don’t see why that’s wrong…” And if you read it fast, sure, it seems perfectly fine: someone lunges across a room, and then places his weapon over someone’s heart, threatening him. Ok, now switch places:
“Placing the point of his sword over Karion’s heart, he lunged across the room.”
Now that’s not possible. It seemed reasonable at first because both actions are connected, use the same item (a sword) and follow each other closely, but imagine this: “He lunged across the kitchen, opening the cupboard.” Unfortunately, this type of arsy-varsy description of events is quite common nowadays, and I believe some people think it’s literary, artistic.
There are gray areas, naturally. For example, this same novella has these sentences:
“The dead hands scrabbled back from Montimort, retreating into the shadows,”
which seems fine because scrabbling back and retreating into the shadows seem like very similar or simultaneous actions, but it’s ambiguous.
“When the sound of the claws faded away, Sarfael stepped back, dropping the point of the sword,”
which is also fine if you imagine he staggers back and lowers the sword at the same time, but I don’t think that’s the picture the author had in mind.
Still, even if correct, the use of the participial is usually superfluous, mostly due to the ambiguities they create that I have mentioned. Many participial phrases you will encounter can be made into normal verbs and joined by an “and.” Example: “The dead hands scrabbed back from Montimor and (then) retreated into the shadows,” and “When the sound of the claws faded away, Sarfael stepped back and lowered his sword.” Writing them all with -ing verbs seem, honestly, like a fad, a stylistic tic.
Naturally, the way to fix the first sentence is the same: “He lunged across the room and placed the point of his sword over Karion’s heart.”
How have these phrases become so popular? First, thanks to self-publishing (although none of the works I will mention here are self-published.) I also believe it’s because of the emphasis on fast-paced action (Robert E. Howard used them a lot for his Conan stories,) which is fine, but also due to the current fixation with detailed descriptions of even the smallest action, reaction, or change in expression, tone of voice, etc. It used to be that if you wanted to say that someone said something and smiled, well, you wrote “he said and smiled.” Now it’s a bit more convoluted:
“Charon’s Claw,” Sha’llazi mused, a smile widening upon his face.
From The Servant of the Shard, by R.A. Salvatore.
If you have recently read more than a few fiction novels, you will have recognized that type of dialogue tag, the “He said, X-ing something or other as he Y-ing something else.” Is it wrong? Not necessarily, but it’s repetitive, convoluted, and unnecessary long. Also, remember that you can also write before the dialogue, to indicate movement, actions, or state of minds:
Sha’llazi smiled. “Charon’s Claw…” he mused.
The same I said before applies here. If the actions are either simultaneous, overlapping, or include each other, it’s probably fine. Did the guy smile as he “mused”? It’s ambiguous, but it could be.
Can they be used well? Sure. I wouldn’t cringe if used to describe subactions inside a bigger action or process, like a journey: “Trudging across poisonous shrubs and evading nightmarish predators, they picked their way across the jungle.” Here, trudging and evading are things that are done within the framework of the larger journey. There may be better ways to write that, but I don’t think it’s wrong.
Or this one, from A Tale of Two Cities:
“With drooping heads and tremulous tails, they [the horses] mashed their way through the thick mud, floundering and stumbling between whiles, as if they were falling to pieces at the larger joints.”
Naturally, as said, if both (or more) actions overlap each other, then it’s fine. In my previous post I talked about Louis L’Amour, so here are some sentences with participles from the first of his Sackett’s novels, Sackett’s Land. The protagonist has found some gold coins and is trying to act casual:
“Slipping them [the coins] casually into my pocket, I stood there looking about.”
If not simultaneous, these two actions are nonetheless overlapping.
“but I was a restless one, moving about and working wherever an extra hand might be needed.”
This is correct because moving and working are actions that are included in a bigger and wider timeframe, his past life, when he was “a restless one.”
And going back to the coins:
“I kicked over my spot, turned about a couple of times, then walked slowly on, plodding as if tired, stopping a time or two to look about.”
Same here. These two phrases modify the implied “I” in “(I)walked slowly on,” and these are actions one can imagine were done at the same time as he “walked slowly on.” I probably wouldn’t use them, but I can’t say they are wrong.
Make sure, however, to put the modifying phrase in a logical place, as close as possible to the thing it modifies if there are many other sentences or clauses flying around. This actually happens sometimes (and I’m paraphrasing a real example): “Dozens of cops aimed their weapons at the criminal on the balcony, reacting on instinct.”
Sure, you probably know what that means, that the cops reacted on instinct, but put the thing where it belongs, in the beginning. Now, this doesn’t really contradict what I said about switching places; participials can be moved. However, with long main sentences or with many subjects and direct objects, it can be hard to know what the phrase is modifying.
The use of these modifiers is not only a matter of grammar, but it’s also one of style, and personally, I dislike them. Sometimes, I can’t say their use is technically wrong, but I still feel they are unnecessary and convoluted. However, current style makes people write trailing dialogue tags and long, strange modifiers. For example, I can’t say for sure this is wrong, but I think you shouldn’t do it anyway:
‘I’m not Dion,’ I cried through chattering teeth, the realization of the imminent end squeezing the air out of my windpipe’
“Ain’t that what all of them always say,” the man with steel-blue eyes cut me off, a tinge of veteran’s weariness coloring his voice.
From The Aching of Dion Harper, in the short-story collection Nature Futures, vol 1.
Note that this is a first-person narrator, and nobody would think or talk about his past events like that. I don’t know anybody who thinks in participles.
It’s also repetitive. The pattern is always the same: “Someone did X, his Y Z-ing something” or variations. And as the saying goes, you may not have noticed, but your brain did. It becomes monotonous and I believe my eyes don’t even process these phrases anymore; every time I see -ing something, I tune out. And the information they add is rarely necessary anyway.
As said, there are some borderline cases, but even with those, I would advise against using them. You are also setting yourself to write mistakes, or ambiguities, that could have been avoided with a simpler, more straightforward style:
“Those of us without helmets on quickly pull them [the helmets] snugly over our heads, watching as our interior displays boot up in .08 seconds, plugging us into the legionnaire battle network”
That’s from the popular Legionnaire, Galaxy’s Edge Book 1. There are two -ing participles there. I’d say the second one is fine, but the first… The reason is the same as always. Switch it, and it feels like they are watching the heads-up display appear before they even put their helmets on. And even if it were right, wouldn’t it be simpler to write: “Those of us without helmets put them on and (then) watched as our interior displays booted up, plugging us into the legionnaire battle network.”?
Participial phrases, which can be connected and joined to create humongous and very effective sentences, are in fact an expert technique, but it seems a lot of people are using them as one of their basic tools of wordsmanship. Some books have many per page, like more than five, sometimes more than one per paragraph, causing all sort of unnecessary troubles and cumbersome sentences.
“Despite the fact that it was crouched on the branch, one hand gripping the barrel of a curious rifle which it was using like a walking stick to help balance itself, the hunters could tell that the figure watching them from within the cowl of its cloak was not one their usual enemies.”
That participle is not the only problem of this sentence from The Conquest of Armaggedon, a W40K novel, but it doesn’t help either. That phrase, “one hand gripping the barrel of a curious rifle which it was using like a walking stick to help balance itself,” is modifying “it.” There are simpler ways to write that, with and without and -ing verb.
Anyway, to sum up:
- Use the -ing participial for simultaneous or overlapping actions or states of mind, not for sequential and distinct behaviors that happen one after another.
- Consider if the information added by the modifier is even important. Think if it’s really relevant to keep pointing how that the character’s eyebrows were twitching or raising all the time, or the minute variations of his voice as he does this or that.
- If you are not sure, switch the order and move the participles around. If it sounds really wrong or you have created a temporal paradox, consider removing the participle.
- Watch out for those mile-long dialogue tags and cumbersome descriptions. As a general rule, if you want to use participles, make them short and energetic, perhaps even a single word (the participle.) If you are gasping for air when you finish reading the entire modifier, you went too far.
- Consider if changing the participle for a simpler “and he (then) did something else” wouldn’t work better anyway. Or just cut the whole thing out.
So, in conclusion, now that you know how it’s done… don’t do it.