Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Last Piece of Theory on Present Participial Phrases

You're probably sick to death of listening to all the talk about the routine abuse of present participial phrases. Trust me, it could be worse. If we posted about this every time we rejected a sub for having too many of these errors, we'd have to rename the blog -ingtorrent.

But in all our talk about these pesky phrases, it occurs to me that we've never given you the final piece of theory. We explained that these phrases are adjective phrases. We talked about the nature of modifiers and how present participial phrases sometimes indicated weakness in the sentence's main clause. And, most recently, Alicia talked about using present participial phrases to signal concurrent actions.

Maybe you've already read these posts and drawn the conclusion I'm about to present. But just in case, and just so we're all clear on how these different bits of advice and theory work together, let's take a look at why these phrases must be concurrent and relevant to the main clause.

In the simple sentence,

The orange cat leaped onto the windowsill

we can all see that orange modifies cat. The cat's orange quality exists at the moment of leaping. In fact, we can assume the cat is orange at all times, barring unfortunate accidents with dye pots. Easy enough so far. But what happens when we replace that simple adjective with a present participle used as an adjective?

The hissing cat leaped onto the windowsill.

The act of hissing still describes the cat, and the act of hissing is still concurrent with the main action verb. Hissing is a state of being that exists during the totality of the leap. Hissing is not a discrete action all on its own. Or, I should say, it's not presented as such. If it were, it would be presented differently, perhaps,

The cat hissed and leaped onto the windowsill.

Then we would be describing a compound action (hissed and leaped) instead of describing a state of being (hissing) of a noun (cat) at the moment an action (leaped) occurs.

You with me so far? Verbs are actions. Adjectives describe qualities or states of being of a noun. And -- this is the main point -- the description of the noun must be simultaneous with the action. If the hissing and leaping occurred in sequence, one first and then the next, you would have to separate them in the sentence, perhaps with an adverb,

The cat hissed and then leaped onto the windowsill.

(Then is an adverb modifying leaped.)

Or you might shift the hissing into an adverb phrase,

After hissing at the dog, the cat leaped onto the windowsill.
While hissing at the dog, the cat leaped onto the windowsill.

These phrases are adverbial in nature because they describe the time elements involved with the actions. They don't qualify the essential nature of the cat. They qualify the timeline. Because adverbs modify verbs, right? Verbs usually lay out the timeline for prose actions, so any time you need to clarify sequencing, you might need adverbs or adverb phrases. And these adverb phrases are not the same as,

Hissing at the dog, the cat leaped onto the windowsill.

Because this doesn't tell us diddly-squat about the sequencing. All we've done in this sentence is elaborate on an adjective (which modifies a noun, not a verb). (Forgive me if this sounds like harping. I'm trying to make this as clear as I can, and this seems to require some repetition of concepts.)

Remember that in the sentence,

The hissing cat leaped onto the windowsill.

the adjective hissing modified the noun cat. All we have done here is add a prepositional phrase to provide more information about the hissing. It's not just any hissing. It's hissing at a dog. But it still describes the essential nature of the cat.

The hissing at the dog cat leaped onto the windowsill.

This sentence is structurally awkward for a whole lot of reasons we won't get into here. But leaving aside all that awkwardness (and the punctuation issue, also a separate matter), the point is that hissing still modifies cat, and at the dog still modifies hissing, and modifiers still go next to the words they modify. You could use punctuation to get around the awkwardness,

The hissing-at-the-dog cat leaped onto the windowsill.

Or you could shift the phrase into an introductory position,

Hissing at the dog, the cat leaped onto the windowsill.

The cat's hissing-at-the-dog nature exists at the moment of the leap. And this is why present participial phrases, which are adjectival in nature, are simultaneous with the main actions of the sentence.

When Alicia was talking about causal and other connections between the present participial phrase and the main verb, I think she was mainly trying to make a point about relevance. We could describe the cat in lots of different ways.

Staring with its blue eyes and hissing at the dog, the cat leaped onto the windowsill.

Now there's a craptastic phrase for you. I had to use one that talked about what the cat is doing with its eyes, because these are generally weak phrases, far less meaningful than dynamic actions like hissing and leaping. Using less meaningful (or even irrelevant) phrases will dilute the impact of the sentence. The cat may very well have staring blue eyes for the duration of the leap. But so what? The fact that it's eyes are blue doesn't give us important information about the actions underway. And the staring -- well, anyone who has been around a cat knows they are champion starers. They stare because they're bored, content, hungry, etc., etc. But hissing only happens in response to a threat, so hissing gives us a more clear description of the cat's state of being at the moment of the jump.

Do we all understand this? Any questions? Got any sample sentences with participial phrases you want us to tackle? Post them in the comments if you do.

Theresa,
tempted to bore us further with another similar post on past participial phrases

27 comments:

Edittorrent said...

Ben (my orange cat) thanks you for making him the Edittorrent participial mascot.
Alicia

green_knight said...

I'm just marvelling at 'leaped' because any cat I've ever had leapt. That aside, I thought it was perfectly clear that 'hissing at the dog' happened in the moment of description - which is why you have so much fun with dangling modifiers.

'Staring with its blue eyes' is almost there. Because staring implies sitting still and fixating the object of displeasure. Unless the cat is jumping down onto the windowsill (not what I first imagined) and the dog is sitting outside the house, what happens during the leap is that the cat takes its eyes off the dog and concentrates on not hitting the wall/windowsill/window. So, 'staring, the cat leapt' is such an unusual sequence of events, that I would emphasize it more.

But that's just me ;-)

Edittorrent said...

If it's an American cat, it leaped.
T

green_knight said...

Two nations divided and all that. Websters actually has both, but I felt insecure enough to look it up.

Edittorrent said...

I did a post, yeah these many years ago, about why we often have both the -ed and the -t verbs still in the language.
Kneeled and knelt, I think were the ones we were dealing with then.
The Britishism I marvel at is "Whilst." We NEVER say that ('cept maybe in legal documents). And yet I see it all the time in Brit-prose.
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

And I for one want to read your post on past participles, Theresa.

Maybe I'm the only one, but I Doubt It. The others are just too shy to step forward and admit it.
Alicia

Murphy said...

Okay, here's a convoluted son of a gun -if ever there was one:

Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided, wincing as the gates creaked and moaned, puncturing the oppressive quiet and causing a group of crows which dotted the lace canopy of trees that stretched out overhead, to burst from their perches and fly away.

This should probably be revised at the puncturing point (no pun intended) with a new sentence break and insert the mention of a concrete subject to be specific to the‘noise’, right?

And as for the Brit v.s American discussion? Years ago, I had a heated discussion with my father-in-law, who told me that pontificating wasn't a word. So, I carted the old Webster dictionary in my purse - to the next family gathering and he took one look at it and smugly quipped: "It’s no wonder you're misusing words.” (he's British btw, so he does 'smugly quip' but I've generously decided that I won't hold this fact against him) and to this day I dream up ways I can work pontificating into my dialogue during the holidays. Thankfully, I have a pompous brother in-law who makes that word work for me with surprising regularity.:D

Murphy said...

Hokie doodle! I forgot to mention that I loved your use of the word craptastic! It says so much doesn't it?

Edittorrent said...

I think it's more likely that the others are sick of my pontificating than that they're too shy. Shyness has never been a big issue around here. :)

We have authors from all over the globe, so we've had to learn a few things about non-American standards. The one that always gets me is the single quote/double quote reversal. My eyes tend to float right over them during line edits.

T

Edittorrent said...

Murphy, may I use your sample sentence on our front page? Might be a good little post.

Theresa

Murphy said...

Of course.:) I like things interesting.

Jami G. said...

Teresa,

Yes, please share your past participles post. We are a semi-captive audience after all. :)

Murphy,

That is a humdinger of a sentence, isn't it? What about:

Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided, wincing as the gates creaked and moaned, puncturing the oppressive quiet and causing a group of crows to burst from their perches dotting the lace canopy of trees stretching overhead and fly away.

It's still not great, but it has less clauses for the reader to trip over.

Jami G.

Jami G. said...

Murphy,

Of course, the more I think about it, the more it seems that the final "and fly away" isn't absolutely necessary to get the idea.

Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided, wincing as the gates creaked and moaned, puncturing the oppressive quiet and causing a group of crows to burst from their perches dotting the lace canopy of trees stretching overhead.

But, yeah, it still needs work... :)
Jami G.

Deb Salisbury said...

Here's a simpler sentence than Murphy's. It modifies. It dangles. Does it work?

She stared into the rain, past the thrashing ocean, searching for another glimpse of the seawall.

Thanks!

Murphy said...

Hey Jami G!
I like your second one, thanks. I do think I would be more inclined to break it up into two sentences. Putting a period at moaned and starting the next sentence with-um, with...what the hell?! I need the creaking and moaning to puncture the silence, right? You see? This is where the backspace button on my computer comes in handy.;)

And Deb? Are you showing off? Posting and flaunting your simpler sentence that dangles and modifies better than my humongous monstrosity ever could? So short and clean - I'm jealous!;)

Jami G. said...

Murphy,

If you're going to split it into 2 sentences (not a bad idea, BTW), you could start the second sentence with "The noise":

The noise punctured the oppressive quiet and caused a group of crows...

-Or-

What I, personally, would do is split the two descriptions of the sound:

Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided, wincing as the gates creaked. The moaning sound from their hinges punctured the oppressive quiet and caused a group of crows...

How's that?
Jami G.

Murphy said...

How's that? TOTALLY AWESOME! I like it. (and don't tell anyone but I'm really hard to please).:D Hey, do you think it would be too much to add rusty in front of hinges?
Murphy

Jami G. said...

Murphy,

I think you could do rusty if you simplified it even more:

The moans from their rusty hinges...

Jami G.

Murphy said...

Okay, I think I like moaning instead of moans - don't know why but, I'll forgo 'rusty' (I bet, if Alicia were looking at this she'd probably say: The fact that the hinges are moaning indicates that they're rusty so, the word is really not needed). And in terms of story or scene? It makes no difference one way or another.
Sold! To the edit without the addition of rusty.
Thanks!

Murphy

Deb Salisbury said...

I'm into simplicity tonight. ;-) Or lots of short sentences.

Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided. She winced as the gates creaked and moaned, puncturing the oppressive quiet. A group of crows burst from their perches in the lacy canopy of trees and flew away.

My theory here is that she doesn't know for certain what caused the crows to fly away.

Edittorrent said...

She stared into the rain, past the thrashing ocean, searching for another glimpse of the seawall.

The final phrase is a cumulative modifier, so that works as it is. I'm not wild about the middle phrase because I'm not sure it's possible to stare past an ocean. How about across the ocean instead?

And you might consider phrasing it so you have only one comma separating the cumulative modifier from the rest of the sentence. Otherwise, you have that interrupting modifying clause separating the main clause from the cumulative modifier, and that's not ideal. It's not a technical error, but it could be improved. Maybe,

She stared through the rain across the ocean, searching etc.

Something like that.

Theresa

Deb Salisbury said...

I'm trying to show how bad the storm is in the fewest (and strongest) words possible. Is this better?

She stared across the thrashing ocean into the rain, searching for another glimpse of the seawall.

For some reason, tonight I can only come up with present participles to describe the ocean. :-)

Edittorrent said...

Yes, that's better, but now that you've explained your goal, I want a better verb than stared. Stared is sort of vacant and passive. What about something that implies effort? Peered. That would work. Anyone have any other ideas for a more dynamic verb there?

Theresa

Deb Salisbury said...

Good point! This is stronger, but I don't think 'above' is quite right.

She squinted into the rain, searching for another glimpse of the seawall above the thrashing ocean.

Thanks for your help.

Murphy said...

You must have read my mind;).

She stared across the thrashing ocean into the rain, searching for another glimpse of the seawall.

Okay Deb:

I like this one. But, if I were going to write it with the phrase into the rain, I would want to use a word that conveys actually looking into the rain. I mean, if she were staring she'd be really uncomfortable with the drops pelting her eyeballs, right? Peered, is good because it indicates that her eyes are straining and narrowed - squinted, maybe? I don't know because both of these words seem too hard to pair with the rest of your prose. Humm...? Nope, if I were going to write this I would take out the word 'across'.

My take: She scanned the thrashing ocean, through the driving rain, desperately searching of another glimpse of the seawall.

My thoughts? She was purposely looking for the seawall, hence the term scanned and she’d really want to be seeing that seawall, if she were out in a heavy storm - so desperate may work.

As for your take on mine? I liked the simplicity of it, but it would stick out like a sore thumb amongst all my other 13 word sentences:). Haven’t you noticed how long winded I am in comments? It’s a curse, I’m afraid, but one that I must live with.
Murphy;)

Babs said...

Murph, that was a long one. I think that you guys worked it out. If I had anything to add from the original I would have:

Hollywood could have a field day filming horror movies here, she decided, wincing as the gates creaked and moaned, puncturing the oppressive quiet and causing a group of crows (which dotted the lace canopy of trees overhead), to burst from their perches and take to flight.

I do get a good picture from the words and I think they are correctly grouped and I like the combination of them. If I think about spliting this into two sentences, I think you would lose the rythm. Only my humble opinion. What do you think? Is this posted somewhere else? I see where Theresa was going to have a look at it. I'd be interested to see what she has to say. Keep it long or make it short, that is the question.;)
Barb

Murphy said...

Shhhh, I've managed to fly (like the above mentioned crows) under the radar, thus far. But like my heroine opening those gates - I'll be wincing if Theresa gets a hold of this one.:D