Friday, December 18, 2009

Gerund or Present Participle Phrase?

A critiquer recently called me out on using a gerund when I think they meant to say present participle phrase.

Gerund, is that a word?

Scratching my head, I opened the web browser and googled the word gerund.
Laughing at my ignorance, I found the definition.

A gerund is a verbal that ends in -ing and functions as a noun. The term verbal indicates that a gerund, like the other two kinds of verbals, is based on a verb and therefore expresses action or a state of being. However, since a gerund functions as a noun, it occupies some positions in a sentence that a noun ordinarily would, for example: subject, direct object, subject complement, and object of preposition.

Now, since we are looking at gerunds, we also need to look at participle phrases too, as they are often referred to and pointed out in a critique.

A participle is a verbal that is used as an adjective and most often ends in -ing or -ed. The term verbal indicates that a participle, like the other two kinds of verbals, is based on a verb and therefore expresses action or a state of being. However, since they function as adjectives, participles modify nouns or pronouns. There are two types of participles: present participles and past participles. Present participles end in -ing. Past participles end in -ed, -en, -d, -t, or -n, as in the words asked, eaten, saved, dealt, and seen.

Now, that is more technical than I want to get into at this moment. You can read the both articles at your leisure (and I suggest you do).

What I really want to focus on is how we use or abuse these present participles in our writing.

The worst use of it is, when we try to avoid the I or He/She trap, (I spoke of this in my previous blog). When we are trying to create gaps between our I's and He's or She's, we sometimes like to think that hiding them in the middle of a sentence will work. The problem with this is we tend to overdo it or do it incorrectly.

Notice the sentences used earlier in this post.

Scratching my head, I opened the web browser and googled the word gerund.
Laughing at my ignorance, I found the definition.

You see how they all started with an -ing? I'm using present participle phrases to start the sentence.

For the sentence to be considered, technically correct, all actions would have to happen simultaneously.

Did I really scratch my head and open a web browser and google the word gerund, all at the same time? Probably not. What I did do, is try to hide my "I" in the middle of a jumble of actions (I scratched my head. I opened the web browser. I googled gerund.) beginning with a present participle phrase.

Here is another bad example.

Walking to the door, I turned the knob.

If you are walking to the door, can you really be turning the knob at the same time?

Do you see the problem here? If the actions aren't happening all at the same time, your sentence is wrong. It's fodder for an editors big red pencil.

Now, I'm not saying don't ever start a sentence this way. You can use the -ing beginning if your actions are all happening simultaneously.

Walking to the door, I grabbed my hat and coat.

That last one is ok (not great, just ok) because you could grab your hat and coat on the way to the door.

The simple rule. If you are going to use a present participle phrase to hide an "I" (or a he/she), make sure your actions are able to happen simultaneously.

And, this should go with out saying but I will say it anyway. If you are going to do it, don't over do it. Make this a tool in your arsenal, not a crutch to lean on.


Susan R. Mills said...

I couldn't agree with you more. This is one of my pet peeves. I point it out to any of my crit partners whenever I see successive action sequences being treated as simultaneous. This also explains why gerunds, or participle phrases are frowned upon. Great post!

L.T. Elliot said...

Thanks for the great advice about gerunds. One can never be too careful. (Unless you're outright breaking the rules. Then you shouldn't be careful.)

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Great explanation. The Editortorent blog had a whole series on PPPs a while back, so apparently they really do annoy editors when used incorrectly or too abundantly.

Deb@RGRamblings said...

Thanks for the info Katie! I shudder to think how many of these are lurking in my drafts...

Melissa said...

I've never thought of this before. Now I'm itchig to get back to my ms because I KNOW I've used these a lot!

V. S said...

Great post and explanation! I'm going to keep this in mind.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Wow, this one is hard. Thanks for taking the time to figure it out and explain it, Katie! You did it really well! Have a great weekend!

laurel said...

The book _Self-Editing for Fiction Writers_ frowns on overusing PPPs too. Your explanation makes it crystal clear why they can become problematic. In the same chapter, King and Browne also called out a variation on the PPP--using "as I walked to the door" or "while I walked to the door," which functions much the same way.

Jessica said...

Great post!

quixotic said...

So glad to help! I was so confused when I heard the term I just had to figure out what the heck the critiquer was saying. I'll be looking at edittorrent blog too. I bet there is lots of great info there.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I see this mistake made often in the MSFV SA contests. I think I'll just link them to your post to save me time instead of explaining what is wrong with their sentences. :D I once critted someone's work where the mc got out of his chair and walked across the room at the same time.