I didn’t want to write this post because I feared the wrong conclusions or lessons could be drawn from it. It is a bit like writing a piece about how the common understanding of drugs and addictions is wrong or exagerated, how most people can take large amounts of drugs without becoming addicted, that the withdrawal effects of some drugs (like heroin) are actually pretty mild, that the “addiction” that people suffer is notlike a demon that takes posession of you, and so on. It’s all technically true, sure, but, you know, some people may get the wrong idea.
To fill new readers in, the point of this post (and the previous one it alludes to) are the participial phrases used in writing, usually with verbal forms ending in -ing although occasionally -ed too (i.e. present and past participles, respectively) which have spread like a linguistic plague of locust across the literary landscape (or the drug abuse in the previous analogy.) In that post, I said:
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.
So, today I will talk about that expert usage. Read the older post to refresh your knowledge about these participial phrases (or just to know what the hell I’m talking about.)
These sort of -ing verbal appendices are so ubiquitous, that naturally my previous advise was to simply stop using them. They are repetitive, they are used wrongly, and there are more elegant or simple solutions, like, well, using the conjunction “and”: “The man opened the window and started spraying the approaching giant mutated toads with lead.”
And if you really have to use them, remember that the actions should be simultaneous or the -ing should work as an adjective, specifying or giving some detail, like a zoom: “The blogger despaired, remembering all the crappy posts he had written.”
Here the act of remembering can be considered a subset or subaction of the act of despairing, although it could have also been written with an “and” or “while” or “as he remembered.”
The trick to knowing if the -ing verb is valid is to switch its position with the main clause: “Remembering all the…, the blogger despaired,” which works fine, if not much better. On the other hand, if you move it and it feels like you have just created a temporal paradox, as in “Walking to the mayor’s desk, the woman opened the door [to the room she was already in]” that’s a sure sign you messed up.
Having said all that, it would be wrong to assume I believe you should either use these participial clauses as presented or not at all, as if there were not a third option. In fact, if any, I wish people would use them more often, but not more as in “in more sentences” but as in “more in the same sentence.” After all, this is perfectly possible:
“Remembering all the crappy post he had written, reminiscing all the wasted hours, running through all his unused ideas, clawing at the dying embers of so many projects cast away, the blogger despaired.”
Here’s a literary secret you probably don’t know: using just a single -ing participle phrase, and usually in the wrong place and in the wrong manner, is for plebs. But using three, four, five, or more is for the monocled aristocracy of writing. And for show-offs, of course. They tend to overlap a bit.
Notice that none of those -ing participles modifying the subject of the main clause (the “blogger”) actually advance any distinct, new action different from it. They specify, augment, detail, or zoom in on the main clause (that the blogger despaired,) working as adjectives for the subject and saying how/why he despaired and/or his thoughts as he did so. Sure, you could have written them as separate sentences, making them independent actions, and it would work just fine, but it would not have the same punch at the end, as the sentence accumulates clauses and increases the tension.
Basically, as long as you are not advancing a new main clause, you could, in theory anyway, keep adding an infinite number of modifying phrases. This is useful to make those cumbersome, multi-sentence descriptions less clunky or give them a better punch.
Remember that in most scene descriptions there’s a single main clause, and usually a very short one, and everything else just adds details, interpretations, or extra information. All those can be phrases, and these can be -ing or -ed participles. I’ll give you an example from The Hour of the Dragon, the only full-length Conan novel R.E. Howard wrote, and I’ll change it using participles. This happens when a group of villains manage to resurrect the long-dead body of the wizard Xaltotum:
And breath sucked in, hissing, through the clenched teeth of the watchers. For as they watched, an awful transmutation became apparent. The withered shape in the sarchophagus was expanding, was growing, lengthening. The bandages burst and fell into brown dust. The shriveled limbs swelled, straightened. Their dusky hue began to fade.
Is this text awful? No. It does the job, but there are other ways to write it. Let’s analyze this chunk of text logically. Which is the main proposition, the main idea? They watched an awful transmutation became apparent. That’s what matters.Everything after that adds detail to that main clause. That doesn’t mean the others are less important, in fact, it’s the opposite! But since they depend on that main idea/clause, it’s not obligatory for them to be separate sentences. See:
For as they watched, and awful transmutation became apparent./: The withered shape in the sarcophagus expanded, growing, lenghtening, its bandages bursting and falling into brown dust, its shriveled limbs swelling and stranghtening, their dusky hue beginning to fade.
This is the logical relation of the nine ideas in that rewrite:
1.An awful transmutation is happening.
1.1.The withered shape in the sarcophagus is expanding.
2.1The withered shape is growing
2.2The withered shape is lengthening
2.3.The bandages are busting
2.4The bandages are falling into brown dust
2.5The shriveled limbs are swelling
2.6 The shriveled limbs are straightening
3.1The hue of the limbs is fading
All the 2s are connected to 1.1, while 3.1 is connected to 2.6. And you could have added more, of course, at different levels: “their dusky hue beginning to fade, changing, becoming paler, warmer—more alive— bursting with new-found life, energy glimmering in his previously dead eyes.” Etc, etc.
There’s theoretically no limit to this but, of course, after awhile, things can get silly, but as long as you keep zooming in, giving extra detail, focusing on one detail or another, making some things clearer or more precise, yet not adding another main clause, and certainly not one that advances the time frame, you can keep at it until you grow bored. Of course, it can get repetitive too, so you should avoid that.
Compare that with an example of misapplied -ing participle I used in the previous post.
“He lunged across the room, placing the point of his sword over Karion’s heart.”
There are two clauses here, and they are independent —one happening after the other— not subordinate.
1.1 He lunges across the room
1.2. He places the point of his sword over Karion’s heart.
These should be connected by something like “and” since they are sequential actions, not simultaneous. Switch the order and you will see the absurdity of what is being said.
It could be possible, however, to say:
1.1. He lunged across the room
2.1.He hopes to catch his enemy off guard
1.2. He places the point of his sword over Karion’s heart.
2.2. He forces himself not to strike him down
Hoping to cath his enemy off guard, he lunged across the room and, forcing himself not to strike him down, placed the point of his sword over Karion’s heart.
So, how did this misuse of participles become so extended? I have no proof, but I’d bet it started in some writers’ workshop, with a teacher telling the students that the best writers use -ing verbs (true) to give their texts a greater strength (somewhat true) and that they give any text a “literary” flavor (sort of true,) that some of them most memorable sentences use it (true enough) but then failed to explain how to use them correctly or even said that it can be used to “link sentences” or “clauses” (completely false.) It’s used to extend them, not link them. You grab a simple idea, and then you built on top of that, aggregating participles but never moving away from that original proposition.
There’s a lot more that could be written about this subject but that should work as an introduction.