Saturday, July 12, 2008

Example of why we're right, and participles very often lead to problems....

Taking the groceries from her, he put the lettuce away in the fridge, pouring a glass of juice as she went back out into the hall, bringing back the case of beer.

Participles are supposed to show simultaneous or near simultaneous action, and as such, they are NOT appropriate for a sequence of action. He cannot possibly simultaneously take the groceries from her, put the lettuce away, pour himself juice... not even if he has four hands (need the groceries in hand before he can put the lettuce away). And she cannot simultaneously give him the groceries, go back into the hall, and bring back the case of beer.

If the writer had not given into the temptation to use participles, he would have had to actually describe the sequence of events, and perhaps even use time terms like "first" and "then". Just that would have forced more understanding of which actions are truly simultaneous and which are causal or sequential. He might even -- shockaroo-- have done this in TWO sentences. Heck, one of those sentences might have been a declarative sentence starting with the subject (he).

Let's try it.

He took the groceries from her and put the lettuce away in the fridge. While he poured a glass of juice, she went back out into the hall and returned with the case of beer.

Now why do so many good writers avoid the absolute building block of English syntax, the declarative SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence? Certainly ALL sentences shouldn't be SVO, but many should be. Never go out of your way to avoid SVO. If you have three like that in a row, sure, look for alternative openings, but try to do that without a participial phrase. Prepositional phrases and dependent clauses are much more graceful and will seldom leave me wheezing with that mingle of laughter and gagging.



Ian said...

Oooooh I hate hate HATE participials! I cut two thousand words out of one of my manuscripts just by eliminating and rewriting participial phrases. That one edit has darn near cured me from ever wanting to use one again. I actually stop in the middle of rushing through a first draft just to fix one that sneaked by me.

Anonymous said...

Thank for acknowledging that participials can imply near simultaneity, too. I once read an article on writing that said that listing a sequence of actions joined with "and" implied simultaneity. Drove me bonkers! Every single action must be its own sentence, then? Just silly.

Natalie Hatch said...

I love this blog, every day in every way I'm becoming a better writer, getting rid of participles reworking sentences, ah it's all good.
By the way I found a sentence just like the one you highlighted in my latest WIP (I was writing quickly and well, now it's been edited to actually make sense).

Edittorrent said...

In keeping with this theme, I opened a manuscript this afternoon, and came across two bad present participial phrases on the first page. One was misplaced, the other dangled.

I did not read the second page.


Edittorrent said...

I do consider-- we wouldn't have this in the language if participial phrases weren't useful. And of course, I do use them myself (though I am much more likely to put the phrase at the end of the sentence). But they really can be problematic.

Edittorrent said...

Thank for acknowledging that participials can imply near simultaneity, too.

Jordan, let's think of some near-simultaneous examples--

Opening the door, he saw a roomful of treasures.

Stumbling into the pothole, she felt a pain jolt up her leg.

Hmm. What do you think?

Jordan McCollum said...

Hm... The doesn't quite feel right, because, like the above example, it's a cause-and-effect kind of thing. I think. ... ... ... Unless it's supposed to convey something like in a movie: Indiana Jones slowly opens the door and the gleam of the gold within the room falls on him in an ever-widening arc.

It's tough to come up with examples off the top of my head. I ran through chapter 1 of my WIP and found exactly one sentence-initial participle ("Sighing."). I didn't realize how much I must have edited it!

Sentence-final participles seem to feel much more natural for cause-and-effect:

She stumbled into the pothole, sending a jolt of pain up her leg.

He opened the door, revealing a roomful of treasures.

Edittorrent said...

You're right, Jordan, it makes more sense with the participle is last.