Authors enjoy debating writing and other literary issues. One issue up for debate is the verbs that end with -ing. Some authors don’t use these constructions, others do. Some editors don’t mind them, other editors do. So, what gives? Let’s look a little closer.
A FEW DEFINITIONS
What is a verb that ends with ing? Actually, they’re not verbs. In grammar, they’re called verbals. Examples: walk/walking, jump/jumping, sing/singing, etc.
What is a verbal? It’s a verb form used as another part of speech.
- Verbals used as adjectives are called participles. Here’s an example: The cackling seagulls soared in the sky.
Cackling is the participle that modifies the noun seagulls.
2. Verbals used as nouns are called gerunds. Here’s an example: Jane enjoys sewing.
Jane is the subject of the sentence, and sewing is the direct object. Sewing, then, is a gerund (i.e. a noun).
Using verbals like those above is fine. Sometimes, we have to use them. However, the debate surrounds whether authors should use participial phrases. Now, let’s look at them.
The Participial Phrase
- What is a phrase? It’s a group of words that, when strung together, work together to carry a certain meaning. A phrase does not have a subject or a verb. Here’s an example: the duck on the water.
- What is the purpose of a phrase? It modifies other parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. It can also modify a complete sentence.
- Types of phrases: prepositional, infinitive, gerund, participial
Since we’re discussing participles, we’ll limit our discussion to the participial phrase.
- What is a participial phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a participle, contains an object, and is used as an adjective. Here’s an example: Running toward town, the dog chased a squirrel up a tree.
- Participle: Running
- Object: town
- Modifies the sentence’s object: dog
- Possible revisions:
Some Final Thoughts and Comments
Is it possible to have too many participial phrases in our story? In my opinion, yes. That said, I also believe it’s fine to use them sparingly. No more than two per page, as recommended by editors Renni Browne and Dave King in their excellent book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
- Too many on a page are amateurish.
- Too many on a page hinder the flow and smoothness of our prose.
- They present problems in clarity and believability. For instance: Getting into her car, Mary accelerated it past the speed limit. It’s impossible for a person to get into a car and accelerate it at the same time, yet this is what that sentence implies.
- Where is the best place in the sentence to use them? In the middle of it, or at the end, are the strongest places.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you use participial phrases or none at all?
Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. Second Edition. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2004.