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RemusShepherd
03-16-2012, 08:51 PM
I want a second opinion on something I read today over at Romance University. (http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/03/16/ask-an-editor-theresa-stevens/) The editor there claims that good writers avoid present participial phrases because they almost never used correctly.

The example given is this:


Serena reached into her cloak pocket, reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside.

The problem is that the phrase starting with 'reassuring' is an adjective that should modify 'reached', but it is next to 'pocket' and seems to modify that.

How serious an issue is this? I'm certain that I've seen constructions like this in printed fiction before. I do have some of them in my own writing, so I'm wondering if I should hammer them out. Or is this editor just one opinion among many, and others consider the present participial phrase to be valid grammar?

It *is* valid grammar, I suppose, but often used incorrectly. The editor's preferred fix for the above is:


Serena reached into her cloak pocket to reassure herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside.

A fix that retains the participial phrase doesn't seem possible in this case. I can't see a way to put 'reassuring' next to 'reached'. But the construction should be valid sometimes, such as:


He saw red, indicating danger.

Since 'red' is the noun doing the 'indicating', this sentence should be fine. Or should the present participial phrase always be avoided?

Amadan
03-16-2012, 09:10 PM
I want a second opinion on something I read today over at Romance University. (http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/03/16/ask-an-editor-theresa-stevens/) The editor there claims that good writers avoid present participial phrases because they almost never used correctly.

Don't know about that, and the example isn't necessarily great writing, but it's not incorrect.


The problem is that the phrase starting with 'reassuring' is an adjective that should modify 'reached', but it is next to 'pocket' and seems to modify that.

But it doesn't. A reader might think it does (which is why phrases that risk confusing a reader should be avoided), but it clearly modifies the action.

Consider these examples:


Serena reached into her cloak pocket, touching her hourglass.


Serena reached into her cloak pocket, feeling foolish.


Serena reached into her cloak pocket, shivering.

Are they confusing? Does "shivering" or "feeling foolish" seem to modify "pocket"? Yet grammatically, they are exactly the same construct, just shorter and simpler.

I think the issue with the example cited is that it introduces an entire secondary clause. Stylistically, doing that with a present participial may not always be the best choice. Avoid wordiness and complicated grammatical constructions unless you're really sure that's what you want to do. But if it works, it's not wrong.

Snick
03-16-2012, 09:25 PM
I would agree with the editor in that case, but your original is perfectly correct. I think it's more of matter of personal preference and sound.

Kenn
03-16-2012, 09:57 PM
I agree with the editor here, but I think the talk of participial phrases is a bit of a red herring.

Your version suggests she reached into her pocket as a result of or while reassuring herself (not in order to). If you swap the sentence around, you'll see what I mean.

Reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside, Serena reached into her cloak pocket.

Jamesaritchie
03-16-2012, 10:03 PM
I agree with the editor. If there's more than one way to read something, you're in trouble, and present participle phrases, even when used correctly, can often lead to misunderstanding.

I wouldn't say never use one, but I would say use them sparingly, read them three times, and then decide.

But I also think such usage is most often lazy writing. It's just the way a sentence goes down without thought, usually from habit. Not good.

heza
03-16-2012, 10:08 PM
Good writers shun this structure

I don't really appreciate judgments like that. I think this is how we get the "rules" everyone is always so afraid to violate. I would think "good" writers know how to use PPPs to the best effect, rather than avoid them altogether.

But, for the same reason Kenn mentioned, I do like


Serena reached into her cloak pocket to reassure herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside.

better than


Serena reached into her cloak pocket, reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside.

The intent implied by the construction is different in each case. I tend to think of a lot of actions modified by PPPs (this case included) as happening sort of serendipitously alongside the modified action. (I probably just made no sense whatsoever.)

It's like, in the "reassuring" version, she reached into her pocket (for no apparent reason) and because her hand was in there, she also happened to be reassured. In the "to reassure" version, her action is prompted by the need to be reassured. The "to" implies an intent in action the original version just doesn't. PPP isn't wrong by nature, but I don't think it's the correct structure to use for this specific purpose, which seems to be illustrated by your trouble with moving it closer to the actor.


Reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside, Serena reached into her cloak pocket.

That's the general fix for a far-out modifier, but it clearly doesn't work because, while the syntax itself looks correct, the order of the actions is all wrong. There's an obvious intent-to-action sequence that's lost here. "To reasure" herself, she would reach into her pocket, but it's not exactly simultaneous action.

Despite that, I hardly ever get confused about what the PPP is modifying if punctuation is involved. Commas clarify a lot.

Consider (however awkward)


She followed the stranger, tiptoeing through the shadows of the market.

(Though, "Tiptoing through the shadows of the market, she followed the stranger" would put the PPP close to the actor.)

vs.


She followed the stranger tipoeing through the shadows of the market.

ArtsyAmy
03-17-2012, 02:08 AM
Looks like I'm in the minority on this one. I preferred the first sentence to the second. I understood the first to mean she put her hand in her pocket to reassure herself. Perhaps the word "reached" played a role in this being clear--reached seems to me to be intentional--if she merely "put her hand in her pocket," then maybe it would be unclear whether she did so for the purpose of reassuring herself.

For me, the first sentence kept the action flowing, but the second one, with the inserted "to," stopped the action and seemed more like a fact was being stated. I'm reminded of how earlier today I was going through a novel taking out unnecessary "that's." Some "that's" are needed to make the meaning clear, but others just block up the flow and need to be chopped. Seems to me "to reassure" rather than "reassuring" does the same thing.

Ketzel
03-17-2012, 02:50 AM
I don't see any grammatical error in this sentence.


Serena reached into her cloak pocket, reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside.

I think the presence of the reflexive pronoun in the participial phrase makes it clear that Sarah, not the cloak pocket, is doing the reassuring. I read this sentence as two things happening simultaneously: as Sarah reaches into her pocket, she is also reassuring herself that she'll find the second hourglass is there. It seems likely to me the next sentence would either express relief when her hand closes on the hourglass or horror when her pocket turns out to be empty.
If that's not what the writer meant to say, then there's a problem, but I don't think its a grammatical one. :-)

blacbird
03-17-2012, 07:10 AM
I don't see any grammatical error in this sentence.

It isn't grammatically incorrect. Which is far from saying that it's well-expressed. Try this:

Serena reached into her cloak pocket. The second hourglass was tucked inside.

Clauses linked by present-participle phrases commonly just need to be separate sentences. PP phrases often are imprecise, and often enough are misleading. Evaluate on that basis whether or not they function well.

caw

heza
03-17-2012, 05:17 PM
Serena reached into her cloak pocket. The second hourglass was tucked inside.

Clauses linked by present-participle phrases commonly just need to be separate sentences. PP phrases often are imprecise, and often enough are misleading. Evaluate on that basis whether or not they function well.

Your version reads better, but I still don't think writers should go separating their clauses on the sole basis of "writers should avoid PPPs." (I realize your post doesn't say that). I'm all for separating clauses when doing so both enhances readability and maintains the same intent as the PPP construction. For example, your rewrite highlights the facts of the action but loses the emotional aspect of Serena needing to reassure herself.

When writers (or editors) are judging whether their PPPs are clear and precise, they should also be determining whether rewriting conveys the same tone. Tone and emotion as so very important in narrative, and I hate when writers rip it out because they feel the need to sacrifice it to a "rule."

brianjanuary
03-17-2012, 05:38 PM
"Reassuring" is not an adjective--it's a particple and part of a participle phrase. Since it modifies Serena, the subject of the sentence , it is fine. Authors use such construction all the time--as long as it's used correctly, there's nothing wrong with it.

veronie
03-18-2012, 01:45 AM
IMO, there's nothing wrong with it on a technical level, but it's weak writing. To see why, think about what's really being said and how it's being said.

Original: "Serena reached into her cloak pocket, reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside."

This sentence really combines two distinct sentences: "Serena reached into her cloak pocket. She was reassuring herself that the second hourglass was tucked inside."

But writing it that way sounds stilted. Also, the second sentence may be a little too much of telling rather than showing. In order to hide the stilted quality of the second sentence, some writers will meld the second sentence into the first using a participial, the way your original sentence is.

I think a lot of good writers would avoid a sentence like that. Here's one way to make it sound less stilted and to get rid of that telling problem:

"Serena reached into her cloak pocket. The second hourglass was tucked inside." (Here, we let the reader figure out that the reason why she reached into her pocket was to reassure herself. No need to tell the readers that outright.)

EDIT: I see that Blacbird said already said the same thing I did.

bonitakale
03-18-2012, 04:35 AM
I agree with the editor. If there's more than one way to read something, you're in trouble, and present participle phrases, even when used correctly, can often lead to misunderstanding.

I wouldn't say never use one, but I would say use them sparingly, read them three times, and then decide.

But I also think such usage is most often lazy writing. It's just the way a sentence goes down without thought, usually from habit. Not good.


I tend to go with this one. "Reassuring herself," and other such phrases are often less specific than the alternatives, such as "to reassure herself." They tell you that A and B happened at the same time, but they don't always explain the relationship between them. I know you often, as a reader, get it anyway, but it's not the clearest way.

blacbird
03-18-2012, 09:08 AM
I agree with the editor. If there's more than one way to read something, you're in trouble, and present participle phrases, even when used correctly, can often lead to misunderstanding.

I wouldn't say never use one, but I would say use them sparingly, read them three times, and then decide.

But I also think such usage is most often lazy writing. It's just the way a sentence goes down without thought, usually from habit. Not good.


Yes to all of this, and I'll add that much of the time, tagging a participial clause to a sentence, in the manner of the OP example, leads to "explainy" writing. Student writing and manuscripts from inexperienced writers I've critiqued commonly suffer simply from too much explaining, and not enough narrating. And it makes for wordiness as well. In the example given, we (the readers) really don't need to be told that she reached into her pocket to reassure herself about the hourglass, especially if the contextual importance of the hourglass has already been established.

caw

Architectus
03-18-2012, 09:48 AM
I don't see the problem. The phrase gives us more information about her reaching into her pocket. To reasure herself means the same thing as reasuring herself.

Fallen
03-18-2012, 06:42 PM
I don't see the problem. The phrase gives us more information about her reaching into her pocket. To reasure herself means the same thing as reasuring herself.

Agreed.


"Reassuring" is not an adjective--it's a particple and part of a participle phrase.

Agreed.


Participle adjectives:


She was very reassuring. (If the -ing can be modified by an adverb, it's being used as an adjective).

I'm going (periphial) adverbial on the op's example, and as Architectus said, it's more supplmentary (aspect) info.

As for which non-finite is better -ing v to-clause. To-clause is limited really to purpose, but as the adverbial seems to be doing the same.... I'd rather go: stylistic issue with this particular example.

bonitakale
03-18-2012, 09:31 PM
I don't see the problem. The phrase gives us more information about her reaching into her pocket. To reasure herself means the same thing as reasuring herself.


Does it? What about, "Explaining herself?" She reached into her pocket, explaining herself to Max while she fingered the gun.

Or, back to reassuring. She reached into her pocket, reassuring herself with a glance back at Alec, and found the stone was gone!

Fallen
03-19-2012, 01:21 AM
Does it? What about, "Explaining herself?" She reached into her pocket, explaining herself to Max while she fingered the gun.

Or, back to reassuring. She reached into her pocket, reassuring herself with a glance back at Alec, and found the stone was gone!


I'm sorry, Boni (bad night with the bab), but I can't see what it is you're saying. :)


The semantic relation will change if you alter the info in either main or supplement. In yours, one's portraying a mental state 'reassuring' herself, the other is verbal 'explaining', but you've changed the rest of the contextual info.


I think architectus is looking at the to / -ing clauses / reflexive pronoun in isolation:


To reassure herself
Reassuring herself


Or with yours:


To explain it to him
Explaining it to him.

Dawnstorm
03-19-2012, 03:10 AM
I'm sorry, Boni (bad night with the bab), but I can't see what it is you're saying. :)

The to-infinitive and the participle don't generally mean the same thing. The present participle phrase signals an action taking place, while the to-infinitive signals intent.

YES: She reached into her pocket to reassure herself that the second hourglass was still there, but it was gone.

NO: She reached into her pocket, reassuring herself that the second hourglass was still there, but it was gone.

That is: with the present participle it's explicit that the reassuring actually happened. With the to-infinitive it isn't. If nothing follows about the presence/absence of the hourglass, I'd assume it was still there. But that's pragmatics: I infer that because "presence" is the default expectation. It's a manner of style: I personally would feel I'd have to precise, so leaving out the actual state of the hourglass would feel like an omission to me. This is why I like blacbird's edit better than the editor's.

I personally would just leave the present participle phrase as it is. It's perfectly fine with me, and I'd guess it's very hard to misundertand.

evangaline
03-19-2012, 04:42 AM
I'm so glad I stumbled upon this thread. Personally, I'm not a fan of short, clipped sentences in reading or writing and would prefer to read the examples cited above as one sentence rather than two.
What I struggle with is something similar to the "what comes first, the chicken or the egg" syndrome.
As an example:
Adam halted his frantic pacing, breathing in wispy snatches of air.
Breathing in wispy snatches of air, Adam halted his frantic pacing.
Quality of the writing aside, is the order of one sentence better than the other and if so, why? Is it a knowledge that's gained through experience or something a writer just "knows"?

Fallen
03-19-2012, 12:05 PM
and I'd guess it's very hard to misundertand.

I think that happens a lot with -ing clauses in general.

bonitakale
03-19-2012, 05:18 PM
I'm so glad I stumbled upon this thread. Personally, I'm not a fan of short, clipped sentences in reading or writing and would prefer to read the examples cited above as one sentence rather than two.
What I struggle with is something similar to the "what comes first, the chicken or the egg" syndrome.
As an example:
Adam halted his frantic pacing, breathing in wispy snatches of air.
Breathing in wispy snatches of air, Adam halted his frantic pacing.
Quality of the writing aside, is the order of one sentence better than the other and if so, why? Is it a knowledge that's gained through experience or something a writer just "knows"?

I'd put them as close as possible to the order in which they happen. They are simultaneous, but hardly any two things are precisely simultaneous. One may begin or end after the other.

Or, one may apply to the next sentence more, and thus should be put last.

Breathing in wispy snatches of air, Adam halted his frantic pacing and turned to face Eileen.

Adam halted his frantic pacing, breathing in wispy snatches of air. He waited till he got his breath back and said,....

Fallen
03-19-2012, 05:47 PM
Quality of the writing aside, is the order of one sentence better than the other and if so, why? Is it a knowledge that's gained through experience or something a writer just "knows"?


To add to Boni's...

The easiest answer is that you go by ear, that's because you've already been exposed to how a sentence works best without even knowing the technicalities behind why.




So going by ear, sometimes if you choose the beginning of a sentence (and there are many reasons why you can), sometimes it's setting the scene for what's to come in the main clause:


Whistling 'don't stop me now', she tripped.


Has more ironic impact than:


She tripped, whistling 'don't stop me now'.


Sometimes you choose the end because you're simply adding new circumstance info:


They shouted and jeered at Nick Clegg, mocking the the lib dem for kissing ass with the conservatives.



Sometimes it's to do with cohesion and the information-flow principle.


Putting it more simply, don't do it, dufus.


That last one is more style adverbial and links back to what was previous said, thus seting up for what's then to come in the main clause:


You know full well that if it's hot, little pegs get burned. Putting it more simply, don't do it, dufus.

'Putting it more' simply is referring both back (to 'you know full well) and forward (don't do it....), so it's acting as a cohesive device (glueing the writing together).

Brigid Barry
03-19-2012, 08:26 PM
"Reassuring" is not an adjective--it's a particple and part of a participle phrase. Since it modifies Serena, the subject of the sentence , it is fine. Authors use such construction all the time--as long as it's used correctly, there's nothing wrong with it.

To my understanding this issue in using it correctly is that the actions have to be simultaneous. The best example is like this:

Fred unlocked the door, letting himself out of the room.

It is not physically possible for Fred to unlock the door and let himself out of the room simultaneously.

Fred scrambled to find the wrench, cussing at his clumsiness.

He can curse and scramble at the same time.

Past or present this is true - the two verbs have to be simultaneous. So she can reach into her pocket and reassure herself at the same time.

Bufty
03-19-2012, 09:03 PM
Bufty peeped in, leaving because of not following what him reading. :flag:

Bit about reaching into pocket and reassuring oneself at same time ring bells like Confucius saying.

Fallen
03-19-2012, 09:12 PM
To my understanding this issue in using it correctly is that the actions have to be simultaneous. The best example is like this:

Fred unlocked the door, letting himself out of the room.

It is not physically possible for Fred to unlock the door and let himself out of the room simultaneously.

Fred scrambled to find the wrench, cussing at his clumsiness.

He can curse and scramble at the same time.

Past or present this is true - the two verbs have to be simultaneous. So she can reach into her pocket and reassure herself at the same time.

What about:

Opening the door, Fred let himself out.

Bufty
03-19-2012, 09:14 PM
Hmmm.. Did he have long enough arms to get through the small window, around the corner and up to the doorhandle?

Fallen
03-19-2012, 09:58 PM
Hmmm.. Did he have long enough arms to get through the small window, around the corner and up to the doorhandle?

:roll: Multitasking lithe limbs through eye-watering slots and holes, around corners and up hills, he escaped. Maybe.... :D

Jonathan Dalar
03-19-2012, 11:54 PM
It's easier for the reader to understand a possibly foggy connection if the word in question applies to one but not the other noun. A word like "reassure" really isn't applicable to pockets, so it's clear the subject of the sentence was the modified.

The final sentence, however:


He saw red, indicating danger.

Is not. He (the subject of the sentence) could indicate danger. As could a warning light, gauge readout, or other such indicator (he saw).

Consider: He saw red, which indicated danger.

And: He saw red, and indicated danger.

It's not as clear if the modifier could ambiguously modify more than one subject. Once you're clear of any of those pesky ambiguous modifiers, your sentence clarity improves.

evangaline
03-19-2012, 11:59 PM
Thank you Boni & Fallen! Your explanations really did penetrate this thick skull of mine! This forum is a lifeline for writers.

blacbird
03-20-2012, 07:14 AM
What about:

Opening the door, Fred let himself out.

"Opening the door" would be the normal way, wouldn't it? Unless he got out through a window or by breaking down a wall, why not just say:

Fred let himself out..

Or, if the subsequent action takes place outside, or in his car, or anyplace other than the house, why even mention that he let himself out? Do you need to describe him walking across the living room to get to the door to let himself out? Do you need to mention that, in doing so, he put his left foot in front of his right, then reversed the procedure, several times, to get there?

Overdescription of inconsequential activities is a major flaw in a lot of manuscripts I see.

caw

Fallen
03-20-2012, 02:41 PM
"Opening the door" would be the normal way, wouldn't it? Unless he got out through a window or by breaking down a wall, why not just say:

Fred let himself out..

Or, if the subsequent action takes place outside, or in his car, or anyplace other than the house, why even mention that he let himself out? Do you need to describe him walking across the living room to get to the door to let himself out? Do you need to mention that, in doing so, he put his left foot in front of his right, then reversed the procedure, several times, to get there?

Overdescription of inconsequential activities is a major flaw in a lot of manuscripts I see.

caw

Noooooooooooooo. Don't go editor my humble proofing ass :D. I don't doubt there are better ways. The point is that -ing-clauses can be looked at from different angles: not just simultanous:

Dangling the keys in front of them, he unlocked the door.

The usual argument is you can't 'dangle' if you're 'unlocking' (simulataneous action), but what about near-simultaneous (or showing a state through action)?

Dangling the keys in front of them (he's being a bit of a b******), he locked the door.

BethS
03-21-2012, 11:18 PM
The point is that -ing-clauses can be looked at from different angles: not just simultanous:

Dangling the keys in front of them, he unlocked the door.

The usual argument is you can't 'dangle' if you're 'unlocking' (simulataneous action), but what about near-simultaneous (or showing a state through action)?



Near-simultaneous does not equal simultaneous. And why write it that way, anyway? It's a weak way to form a sentence, because you're forcing a subordinate, supporting clause to take on the role of a main action.

Better would be--

He dangled the keys in front of them before unlocking the door.

or

He dangled the keys in front of them, then unlocked the door.

Reserve the subordinate clause for a truly supporting function--an action that modifies or enhances the main action.

Her heart pounding, she opened the box.

In that case, the dependent clause is first in the sentence because the action of opening the box needs to be last, for greatest impact.

But mostly it's better to place the dependent clause in the middle of the sentence or at the end.

He trudged through the snow, leaving bloody footprints in his wake.

Fallen
03-22-2012, 01:05 AM
Near-simultaneous does not equal simultaneous. And why write it that way, anyway? It's a weak way to form a sentence, because you're forcing a subordinate, supporting clause to take on the role of a main action.

Better would be--

He dangled the keys in front of them before unlocking the door.

or

He dangled the keys in front of them, then unlocked the door.

Reserve the subordinate clause for a truly supporting function--an action that modifies or enhances the main action.

Her heart pounding, she opened the box.

In that case, the dependent clause is first in the sentence because the action of opening the box needs to be last, for greatest impact.

But mostly it's better to place the dependent clause in the middle of the sentence or at the end.

He trudged through the snow, leaving bloody footprints in his wake.



You're editting out of context, Beth, and without looking at what Kate is saying.


To my understanding this issue in using it correctly is that the actions have to be simultaneous... the two verbs have to be simultaneous. So she can reach into her pocket and reassure herself at the same time.

I'm saying that youd don't just use -ing clauses to portray simulataneous action (as evan was asking why/when intial, medial and end positioning would be a choice for placement).

The semantic relation between -ing clause and main is tenuous at best, yes aspect plays a major part, but it can be dealing with many things, including time, reason, condition.

Your example deals with a mental state, then main clause.

Her heart pounding, she...

Which is one use, but saying 'simultaneous use' is the only correct way restricts usage.

'Grabbing the keys, she rushed out of the bedroom.'

This one could suggest a series of events (you grab and then run).

I'm not saying how can this be written better; I'm looking at the meaning of it as it stands.

blacbird
03-22-2012, 07:53 AM
'Grabbing the keys, she rushed out of the bedroom.'

This one could suggest a series of events (you grab and then run).

I'm not saying how can this be written better; I'm looking at the meaning of it as it stands.

Well, yes, I agree with you that your interpretation is how most people would read it.

Which still doesn't make it good usage. Grammatical correctness isn't a guarantor of good writing, which is what I think I said in my first post in this thread. And is not an irrelevant issue.

One of my first pieces of advice to students in my writing classes is: If a sentence you've written bothers you, chances are you can write it differently and improve it. Even if the first version has no grammatical problem.

caw

Fallen
03-22-2012, 02:40 PM
Well, yes, I agree with you that your interpretation is how most people would read it.

Which still doesn't make it good usage. Grammatical correctness isn't a guarantor of good writing, which is what I think I said in my first post in this thread. And is not an irrelevant issue.

One of my first pieces of advice to students in my writing classes is: If a sentence you've written bothers you, chances are you can write it differently and improve it. Even if the first version has no grammatical problem.

caw

Agreed ;)

'Grabbing the keys, she rushed out of the bedroom.' Comes from one of Richard Layman's novels. The 'Dangling the keys...' example comes from the Longman Student G. (fict). Layman uses far more -ing clauses than say, the likes of Patricia Cornwell (she seemes to favour the 'supplement info -ing' (final position)).

I think it just makes me nervous when some editors say 'good authors avoid'. I think 'good authors' just know when 'best' to use something. You get an aspiring author thinking they can't be used at all, when that isn't the case.

BethS
03-22-2012, 05:11 PM
You're editting out of context, Beth, and without looking at what Kate is saying.

*puzzled* I wasn't responding to Kate. So I'm not sure what you mean when you say I'm editing out of context. I was arguing with your supposition that actions that are close to simultaneous are OK to write as a dependent/independent construct.


'Grabbing the keys, she rushed out of the bedroom.'

This one could suggest a series of events (you grab and then run).



Those are two consecutive actions, yes, and they happen very close together, but that's still a misuse of the dependent clause. A dependent clause should modify and support the main clause. In that sentence, you have two equal and distinct actions--grabbing the keys and rushing out of the bedroom--but one of them has been incorrectly relegated to a position of supporting the other.

And sure--sometimes you do find sentences like that in published books. Unfortunately. But it's not a good example to follow.

tmesis
03-22-2012, 05:25 PM
Those are two consecutive actions, yes, and they happen very close together, but that's still a misuse of the dependent clause.

According to whom, though? I've seen this usage decried too, but I'm not necessarily convinced. This site (http://www.rainschool.com/school-of-english/writing-training-levels-3-5/upper-intermediate-writing/explaining-ing-participle-clauses-developed-e4-07w/), for instance, says simultaneous and sequential uses are both fine.

Bufty
03-22-2012, 05:44 PM
All I want is to understand - at first read - what image the writer is trying to convey in the context of the scene in question.

If I do, I'm not going to start picking clauses apart looking for some other meaning that probably only exists when considering the relative sentence outside the context.

heza
03-22-2012, 06:15 PM
I think the fact that we find these constructions in published books--and fairly widely, in my opinion--doesn't so much mean we shouldn't follow those awful examples of misuse, as proves that it's a perfectly acceptable use of language.

It's no shocker that writer-types are going to henpeck grammar and syntax to death, no matter where we find it. The vast majority of readers, though, use a solid understanding of basic language, idioms, laws of physics, and common sense to determine the meaning of sentences.

When someone reads "Unlocking the door, he let himself out," no one thinks "My god! How in Hades did he stretch his arms out the window and open the door from the outside!?" This thought never enters most readers' minds because most of us automatically dismiss absurd interpretations of language. "Writers" and other grammarians might have a chuckle; most people are completely aware of the author's intent.

Yes, we should avoid awkward situations, like "Getting out of bed, he caught the bus," and I realize some people are going to have different levels of tolerance for what's "awkward." But I don't see any reason why, if the structure makes contextual sense, can't legitimately be misconstrued, and doesn't confuse the reader, we shouldn't use the structure to our full advantage for variety, flow, rhythm, and nuance.

Readers aren't stupid, and in my opinion, the idea that you must always avoid the construction was thought up by the same people who iron their underwear. It's a valid construction--writers use it; readers understand it.

Fallen
03-22-2012, 06:56 PM
The vast majority of readers, though, use a solid understanding of basic language, idioms, laws of physics, and common sense to determine the meaning of sentences.



I think this hits it on the head. If a reader took every example of writing literally, you'd get pretty outlandish interpretations.

@Beth. Can you maybe provide some citations from a reference grammar that says these constructions are weak or (near-simultaneous) should be avoided in fiction? I'd like to have a look at what's being said. :)

BethS
03-22-2012, 07:41 PM
According to whom, though? I've seen this usage decried too, but I'm not necessarily convinced. This site (http://www.rainschool.com/school-of-english/writing-training-levels-3-5/upper-intermediate-writing/explaining-ing-participle-clauses-developed-e4-07w/), for instance, says simultaneous and sequential uses are both fine.

Some do say that. I've never figured out why they think it's acceptable, either grammatically or from a good-writing standpoint. From the source you cited, they also said things like:



Brushing an imaginary hair from his jacket, the President stepped up to the microphone.

Note that the end position in the sentence carries the most weight: it is there that the most important information is presented. For this reason, although it is not wrong grammar, it would be unnatural in English to use the reverse order:

Stepping up to the microphone, the President brushed an imaginary hair from his jacket.

The second example is not "unnatural" and it may well be the best way to write that sentence, if the fact that's he's brushing away a hair (imginary or otherwise) is actually significant and the writer wants it to be noticed.

Since you asked for sources, let me quote from two respected ones. First, John Gardner in The Art of Fiction says:



Sentences beginning with infinite-verb clauses are so common in bad writing that one is wise to treat them as guilty until proven innocent.[...]In really bad writing, such introductory phrases regularly lead to shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic. The bad writer tells us, for instance: "Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, Eloise drove into town." (The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and driving into town are simultaneous.) Or the bad writer tells us, "Quickly turning from the bulkhead, Captain Figg spoke slowly and carefully." (Illogical; that is, impossible.) But even if no illogic or confusion of temporal focus is involved, the too-frequent or inappropriate use of infinite verb phrases makes bad writing. Generally it comes about because the writer cannot think of a way to vary the length of his sentences.


And from the widely recommended Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King:



One easy way to make your writing seem more sophisticated is to avoid two stylistic constructions that are common to hack writers, namely

Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.
or
As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

Both the as construction and the -ing construction as used above are grammatically correct and express the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action ("She pulled off her gloves...") and tuck it away into a dependent clause ("Pulling off her gloves..."). This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. And so if you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.

Another reason to avoid the as and the -ing constructions is that they sometimes give rise to physical impossibilities. We once worked on the autobiography of a behavioral biologist who, in the process of describing her field work, wrote, "Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh jeans." The -ing construction forces simultaneity on two actions that can't be simultaneous. The doctor didn't duck into the tent and pull on clean pants at the same time--she was a biologist, not a contortionist.


Both of these sources went on to say that the -ing construction is not to be avoided entirely, but it needs to be used appropriately and thoughtfully, not scattered like confetti throughout the writing. And their objections mostly centered around using them to open a sentence, which is the weakest position and seems to cause the most problems.

RemusShepherd
03-22-2012, 07:47 PM
I think this hits it on the head. If a reader took every example of writing literally, you'd get pretty outlandish interpretations.

I think you're right that this is the core of the question: How much can you bend the rules of grammar before your prose suffers?

I worry that there may be two answers to that question, one for readers and one for editors. Readers are forgiving, but judging by the linked article in the OP editors may be extremely (overly?) strict.

Fallen
03-23-2012, 02:15 PM
'make your writing seem incidental, unimportant'

They're supplement clauses:



By using a supplement clause, the writer marks information as supplementary background information to the main clause.


(The Longman Student Grammar, p258)

It's kind of one of the points to supplementary clauses that the main clause remains the focus. To say it's 'weak usage' because that structure makes your writing 'incidental' or 'unimportant' seems... both ironical and prescriptive.

They're not like this class of dependent -ing clauses:

Using a supplement clause is considered 'weak' by some (subject -ing)... The woman taking the call was frustrated (noun postmodifier)...

Information becomes background, sets the scene to the main etc:

'Grabbing the keys, she rushed out of the bathroom.' (Laymen)

They're not as closely tied like the examples above, and their semantic relation varies.

Going back to the op's editorial link... If a 'good writer' intended it as anything but 'supplementary', he'd write it differently. But if he intended it as supplementary, as background info to the main, he wouldn't be a 'bad writer' for using them...

BethS
03-23-2012, 06:26 PM
It's kind of one of the points to supplementary clauses that the main clause remains the focus.

Yes, absolutely.


To say it's 'weak usage' because that structure makes your writing 'incidental' or 'unimportant' seems... both ironical and prescriptive.

This is missing the point, which I'll repeat: taking an action and forcing it inappropriately into a supportive or supplemental role is what weakens the sentence. It's not that you can't have these phrases; it's what you use them for that makes the difference between good and bad sentences. This same point was touched in at least one of the sources I cited in my previous post. And since you requested that I provide some sources, I'd be curious to hear your response to them.



Going back to the op's editorial link... If a 'good writer' intended it as anything but 'supplementary', he'd write it differently. But if he intended it as supplementary, as background info to the main, he wouldn't be a 'bad writer' for using them...

Well, I'd argue that if he writes sentences like

Grabbing the keys, I dashed out of the room

or

Entering the room, she answered the ringing phone

intending one of those actions to be subordinate to the other, then clearly he doesn't understand the proper use of the infinite verb clause.

In those sentences, the actions did not happen simultaneously, nor is one incidental to or modifying the other. The actions are separate and sequential. They have equal weight, which makes the use of the dependent clause inappropriate.

A better way to write them would be:

I grabbed the keys from their hook and dashed out of the room.

I hurried down the hall, snagging the keys from the table along the way.

She burst into the room and pounced on the ringing phone.

Upon entering the room, she heard the phone ring and went to answer it.

Bufty
03-23-2012, 06:39 PM
Quoting phrases out of context is never conclusive.

Who is to say an author's choice of words wasn't deliberate and used because it fitted the particular situation?

For instance, if I already knew the keys were hanging on a hook beside (or even on the back of) the open door I would completely accept -

Grabbing the keys, I dashed out of the room



...

Well, I'd argue that if he writes sentences like

Grabbing the keys, I dashed out of the room

or

Entering the room, she answered the ringing phone

intending one of those actions to be subordinate to the other, then clearly he doesn't understand the proper use of the infinite verb clause.

In those sentences, the actions did not happen simultaneously, nor is one incidental to or modifying the other. The actions are separate and sequential. They have equal weight, which makes the use of the dependent clause inappropriate.

A better way to write them would be:

I grabbed the keys from their hook and dashed out of the room..

Fallen
03-23-2012, 08:38 PM
And since you requested that I provide some sources, I'd be curious to hear your response to them.


They're style sources. 'Prescriptive' sums up my response to their tone well enough. That's no disrespect to anyone. It's just obvious to me that some authors do use these initial supplement clauses to suggest near-smultaneous action. I'd much rather look at examples from authors across different genres to understand why/why not to use them, rather than be told outright that they can be bad writing.





Well, I'd argue that if he writes sentences like


Entering the room, she answered the ringing phone

A better way to write them would be:

Upon entering the room, she heard the phone ring and went to answer it.


And this is where taking the writing literally unsettles me. Yes it's 'correct' to use the adverb, but like with the 'Grabbing the keys, she rushed out of the room' example, when the adverb is dropped, a reader is able to 'infer' the sequence from context.

BethS
03-24-2012, 12:07 AM
I'd much rather look at examples from authors across different genres to understand why/why not to use them, rather than be told outright that they can be bad writing.

I think it's always a good idea to study the writing in published novels, but if you (generic you, not you in particular) are already of the opinion that such constructions are acceptable/unacceptable, then finding examples of them (or lack thereof) will only reinforce your position, I should think.


And this is where taking the writing literally unsettles me. Yes it's 'correct' to use the adverb, but like with the 'Grabbing the keys, she rushed out of the room' example, when the adverb is dropped, a reader is able to 'infer' the sequence from context.

Yes, and this is really where we differ. Of course, we can understand it perfectly well, but that still doesn't make it a good sentence. My opinion (which will be no surprise to anyone :) ) is that while it may be clear in meaning, it is also sloppy writing.

That said, if I occasionally encounter a sentence like that in a published book, I'm not going to care much. If the writing is peppered with them, though, I won't bother reading further than a page or so.

blacbird
03-24-2012, 07:10 AM
Of course, we can understand it perfectly well, but that still doesn't make it a good sentence. My opinion (which will be no surprise to anyone :) ) is that while it may be clear in meaning, it is also sloppy writing.

That said, if I occasionally encounter a sentence like that in a published book, I'm not going to care much. If the writing is peppered with them, though, I won't bother reading further than a page or so.

Clearest, most succinct, and most pertinent post in this thread.

caw

BethS
03-24-2012, 05:41 PM
Clearest, most succinct, and most pertinent post in this thread.



Thank you!

Fallen
03-24-2012, 07:40 PM
I think it's always a good idea to study the writing in published novels, but if you (generic you, not you in particular) are already of the opinion that such constructions are acceptable/unacceptable, then finding examples of them (or lack thereof) will only reinforce your position, I should think.


This is where we differ again. I don't go into a debate thinking 'generic you' (not me) is that closed minded.


If an editor is going to claim using these 'adjectives' can be a sign of a 'bad writer' well.... it just leaves it open for debate.

As for stylistic references, there's your style, house style, and then a style guide. The last two should compliment the first, nothing more. Gardner is aimed toward the literary market (I assume from the tone), which leaves genre fiction where in his rhetoric? Of course you can apply it genre fiction, but I'd much rather take style points from some respected authority in that genre. Otherwise you're white-washing over the subtle differences within genre writing.

As for what I use, the grammar references, they don't go indepth into genre differences either, they take fiction as a whole.

Both come up short.

Yet nothing yet stated in this thread leads me to believe that meaning can't be inferred naturally (e.g., you don't have to spoon-feed readers with 'upon' etc)), or that it's 'sloppy writing' when used for the right reasons.

Dawnstorm
03-24-2012, 11:26 PM
Gardner is aimed toward the literary market (I assume from the tone), which leaves genre fiction where in his rhetoric?

Well, I doubt that this is relevant at that level of abstraction. Gardner is a literary critic who thinks that creative writing can be taught. He's also a writer of (mostly?) fantasy fiction. His Grendel is a genre classic. The book (ETA:The Art of Fiction - not Grendel; thoughts leap all over the place; sorry) is essayistic in style. You can see that from the tone of the excerpt posted; it's rhetoric rather than enlightning (aimed to pursuade, rather than impart information).

I refreshed my knowledge of Gardner on his Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gardner_%28American_writer%29), and found a link to one of his books on Google books. I was curious how long I'd have to wait for the first participle clause. Turns out there's one in the very first non-dialogue sentence:


The old man glared into the flames in the fireplace and trembled all over, biting so hard on the stem of his pipe that it crackled once, sharply, like the fireplace log.

I didn't find any more on that page; there were two in close succession on page two. Then I stopped reading. (I like his prose. :) )

My problem with Gardner's style is that it relies on the intuition of the author and the reader (and there may be a disconnect in what each means by "often", or "too much" - to the point that communication fails). If you treat participle phrases as "guilty until proven innocent" you will execute lots of innocents without ever realising. Don't take Gardner too seriously on that.

Browne/King are more practical and less essayistic, giving you a rule-of-thumb for editing (as that's their point), but they too single out a certain element and then list arguments against that. The second is an old, old bugbear (the simulaneity one), and you're better off ignoring it until you investigate further. Else you've just acquired a prejudice. The first argument, about foreground/background, is interesting, but you're better off thinking about that in its own terms (using too much foreground, or failing to differentiate between the two is as dangerous as overloading the background).

As for "sloppy writing": I really, really wish people would stop making judgements of writers' dedication to their work from the text: they may disagree with you and like it that way. Then it's not sloppy. Call it bad writing. Call it boring writing. Call it sluggish writing. Or whatever. Use words that express the effect on you, the reader. Not words that make claims about the writer (if you know nothing about him/her). Then I have at least a hint of what you think is wrong with it. Otherwise I'd think you're just repeating prejudice.

Fallen
03-25-2012, 12:51 PM
Else you've just acquired a prejudice.

Now that's the risk underpinned beautifully.

BethS
03-25-2012, 06:01 PM
Gardner is aimed toward the literary market (I assume from the tone), which leaves genre fiction where in his rhetoric?

Fwiw, the full title of his book is: The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.

Which would seem to include all genres and types of fiction.

BethS
03-25-2012, 06:10 PM
I refreshed my knowledge of Gardner on his Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gardner_%28American_writer%29), and found a link to one of his books on Google books. I was curious how long I'd have to wait for the first participle clause. Turns out there's one in the very first non-dialogue sentence:


Originally Posted by John Gardner; October Light
The old man glared into the flames in the fireplace and trembled all over, biting so hard on the stem of his pipe that it crackled once, sharply, like the fireplace log.

That's a great sentence. And it doesn't use the troublesome kind of infinite-verb clause (as he calls it) that he was talking about in The Art of Fiction.



My problem with Gardner's style is that it relies on the intuition of the author and the reader (and there may be a disconnect in what each means by "often", or "too much" - to the point that communication fails). If you treat participle phrases as "guilty until proven innocent" you will execute lots of innocents without ever realising. Don't take Gardner too seriously on that.

But he's not criticizing all use of those phrases. Only a very specific, problematic use: when they appear at the beginning of a sentence and when they're used to show consecutive actions.



As for "sloppy writing": I really, really wish people would stop making judgements of writers' dedication to their work from the text: they may disagree with you and like it that way. Then it's not sloppy. Call it bad writing. Call it boring writing. Call it sluggish writing. Or whatever. Use words that express the effect on you, the reader. Not words that make claims about the writer (if you know nothing about him/her). Then I have at least a hint of what you think is wrong with it. Otherwise I'd think you're just repeating prejudice.

OK, good point.

Dawnstorm
03-25-2012, 09:44 PM
But he's not criticizing all use of those phrases. Only a very specific, problematic use: when they appear at the beginning of a sentence and when they're used to show consecutive actions.

Ah, yes, he does. And none of the participle clauses I found would fit that mold. (Sorry, sloppy reading on my part. Heh.)

Fallen
03-25-2012, 10:27 PM
(Sorry, sloppy reading on my part. Heh.)

:e2thud:

Fallen
03-25-2012, 11:49 PM
Fwiw, the full title of his book is: The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.

Which would seem to include all genres and types of fiction.

Hmm, so to does the Longman Student Grammar. Which again brings up the problem with subtle differences within those genres, or at least acknowledging that there are subtle differences within those genres.

It would be interesting to see if one genre (sub) differs from another on these constructions.

But overall, I'm careful with rhetoric ;)

pellshek
09-24-2014, 06:31 PM
I hope it's ok to bump an old thread. The topic seems to fit a nightmare issue I'm suddenly having with present participles (PP) and present participle phrases (PPP).

Here are three sentences containing PPs, all of which I'm struggling to understand grammatically:

1. From example in Oxford Dictionary on usage of verb "to spurt", which also happens to contain a second PP:


He stood clutching his neck, blood spurting out in pumps, a look of shock upon his face.http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/spurt?q=spurting

2. A sentence I made up:


Nobody was bothered washing the floor.3. And another:


'This guy looks like trouble,' John said, reading from the Mr. Smith's file.I believe participles can only be one of three things:

a) Part of a multi-part verb
b) Adjectives
c) Gerunds (nouns)

I've been reading up on PPs and PPPs all week, but I'm still really confused. I could have a stab at each of the above, but rather than using up bandwidth and confusing people with my half-assed guessing I might just leave it up to you guys to help me out.

...........

Fwiw, the reason I'm obsessing about this is that I've recently become convinced - 100% convinced - that present participle phrases are Kryptonite for the amateur writer. As in, one should actively, zealously go out of one's way to avoid them/get rid of majority of them from your WiP. Introductory PPPs in particular seem like Kryptonite lightly sprinkled with Ebola.

Amadan
09-24-2014, 06:48 PM
Your problem is with the tenses.


Nobody was bothered washing the floor.

Should be:

Nobody was bothering to wash the floor.

or

Nobody bothered washing the floor.


'This guy looks like trouble,' John said, reading from the Mr. Smith's file.

This is grammatically correct (except for the 'the'), although as written, he is literally reading those words aloud from the file.

pellshek
09-24-2014, 09:36 PM
Hi Amadan,


Your problem is with the tenses.

Should be:

Nobody was bothering to wash the floor.

or

Nobody bothered washing the floor.

Hm, I'd intended "bothered" to be an adjective here, not a verb/part of a verb conjugation. I think maybe my mistake is that I need to add the word "about" to make it an adjective:


Nobody was bothered about washing the floorThat sentence to my ear has a slightly different sense to your examples, implying more of an on-going state of refusal or lack of willingness. Your examples sound more like an immediate refusal/unwillingness.

In any event, I believe your second example has the same PP "washing" as in my original, and it's this element of the grammar I'm struggling with.

............



This is grammatically correct (except for the 'the'), although as written, he is literally reading those words aloud from the file.

Sure, I get that it's grammatically correct (I appreciate your point about it sounding like he's reading aloud, so maybe "scanning" or "flicking through" would be better) but I'm trying to understand the underlying grammar behind it.

My understanding is that it's a present participle phrase that modifies John, but I'm not at all certain.