Friday, August 21, 2009

Five Minutes Could Change Your Style Forever

I know we nag a bit about present participial phrases. I was thinking about this last night, and it dawned on me that people might not understand that this isn't just some personal peccadillo.

So here's a quick exercise for everyone to do. It will take less than five minutes, and the results might surprise you.

Step 1.
Go to your bookcase. Take down a book you love, something that really spoke to you when you read it the first time. Open to a random page.

Step 2.
Count the sentences on that page.

Step 3.
Count the present participial phrases. (Skip past progressive verb tenses and gerunds. We're just looking for the dreaded PPP here.)

That's it. 1, 2, 3. Do the results surprise you?

Share your numbers in the comments. I'll get the ball rolling here. In my purse, I have Don't Bargain With the Devil by Sabrina Jeffries, an historical romance author of no small reputation.

I opened randomly to page 198.
Sentences: 27 (including partials from previous and next page)
PPPs: 1

Second spin of the wheel, this time on page 108.
Sentences: 28
PPPs: 0

Your turn!
Theresa

29 comments:

Jami G. said...

Hi Teresa,

Okay, you got me... I saw 0-4 in the book I scanned.

But what does this mean? I understand the problem with using them incorrectly, but what if you're using them correctly? (Now that I know the difference thanks to you two.) I don't have nearly the number I used to once I cleaned up the dangling or time-sequence-problem ones, but I still have some. Should we be avoiding them even if they're grammatically correct? And if so, why?

Thanks!
Jami G.

Jami G. said...

I should have said that I saw 0 to 4 per page on the book I scanned.

And now that I just reviewed my WIP, I'm probably close to this in the sections I've corrected. But, my question remains - should we be avoiding them, even if they're correct?

Thanks!
Jami G.

Stephanie, PQW said...

Sentences: 24 PPP: 0 (Peeled by Joan Bauer

Sentences: 28 PPP:0 (Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Enough said. I'm an absolute convert. Thank you. Thank you.

Reading this post made all the difference. (Just kidding...about the structure, not the message.)

Jordan McCollum said...

I grabbed To Kill a Mockingbird (0 PPPs on three pages with a total of 78 sentences)—but this is probably a bad book to use, since A.) the POV character is a child, and children don't think like that (though you can certainly argue adults don't think like that, either!), and B.) most of these three pages happened to be dialogue and people don't speak like that for the most part (although some do in formal settings, but two of the pages were in formal settings—church and court, although both the speakers there were black men, so that might have been a register indicator as well).

Let's see. People don't think like that and people don't talk like that. If our narration is in deep POV (first or third), it sounds like our POV character probably wouldn't think that way, either.

So, a lot of times the defense for PPP is varying sentence structure. Is it a sin to have three of four sentences in a paragraph start with 'He'? (Short, simple declaratives--the whole paragraph is only four lines. I'm disinclined to mess with it despite my CP's advice, since it seems to work best as a very short paragraph and any "fixes" look like they'd gunk it up.)

Jordan McCollum said...

@Stephanie—Wait, that's not a PPP. That's a gerund in subject position. Isn't it? Wouldn't PPP be, "Reading this post, I realized the errors of my ways." or "Turning to my imaginary friend, I said, 'Theresa's so smart!'"?

Kathleen MacIver said...

Yes!!! I'm bookmarking this one and sending people to it every time I'm about to go insane because they keep suggesting sentences with PPPs! Personally, I HATE them at the beginning of sentences. They literally jerk me right out of the world. Yet that is exactly what's taking over modern aspiring authordom.

::sigh::

I'm like Jordan...people often suggest them because I have three sentences in a row that start with "he" or "she." I suppose maybe I still need to work on that issue...but if those three sentences are summing-up and transition sentences, and I can't make the action or direct objects the subject of alternative sentences, then...I'm stuck as to what to do. (But I still won't resort to PPPs, even if I can manage a correct one.)

MJ said...

first one 7 of 40 sentences. So I checked two more pages in that book.
3 of 38
3 of 33

second book, a best seller, 1 of 40 sentences.

Adrian said...

Don't ask us to do a similar exercise with sentence fragments; you might not like the result.

I love Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels, but I'd have to look long and hard to find a complete sentence, even outside of dialogue.

Murphy said...

Okay, not that I really want to point this out, BUT...

I believe the reason all of our favorite authors don't have a lot of PPPs in their books is because their editors took them out.:D Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. (Says she who has a few. Oh all right, more than a few, but I’m working on them *grumble* *grumble*)

So with that in mind. What about the use of helping verbs to stop sentences from becoming fragmented? Can this work and would it be accepted? Or, my personal favorite - what if you attach a ppp to a main clause? Acceptable or not?

And Theresa? You don't have to answer me, but for the love of God will you answer Jami? I think she's going to chew her fingernails to the quick if you take much longer to get back to her on this. Ha! And to think Jami had the nerve to question me about my labeling her Poindexter! Sheesh!;)

...Uh oh, I was just thinking ( and that’s never good) what’s Alicia’s opinion on this? I mean, if she holds to her position that everything in grammar is there to serve a purpose - why can’t the purpose of PPPs be to switch up the monotony - or maybe infuse the prose with something a little different? That’s primarily why I do it.

Just wondering...
Murphy

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, good point--Reading this post made all the difference.

Reading is indeed a gerund (a participle used as a noun). It's not the "-ing" that's the problem, it's the merging (G) of actions that comes from a participial phrase with a main clause. Sometimes actions are simultaneous, but not usually, and the PPP presents them as being simultaneous (and about equal in importance, which is even less likely to be true).

So you're right!

The point Theresa is making is, this is not something that should make up half our sentences. A PPP isn't usually the best way to open a sentence, and yet, in many submissions, there will be PPP after PPP. A preponderance of PPP-sentences is a marker of the amateur, for many reasons, and that's why we don't see very many of those in published work.

I'll be frank here-- it can't hurt to know what editors consider marks of the amateur, so you can avoid those.
(Sentence fragments aren't a mark, btw, but certain types of sentence fragments are... like many "which" clauses spun off where they are easily hooked to the main clause.)

You will get more respectful read from editors, I'd say, if you avoid the most common "amateur" issues.

There's a fun exercise! If you have access to an editor (one that takes submissions), ask how he/she can tell on the first page that this isn't an experienced writer.
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Murphy, yes, there is a purpose to PPP, but it's NOT to change up the sentence opening. It's to show simultaneous action. That's it. Some writers think that its main function is to vary sentence openings, but there are many ways to do that, and few-- FEW-- of the alternatives have as many potential problems as the PPP.

To reiterate-- the actual purpose of PPPs is limited, and when you use a PPP for that purpose, and it makes sense, you won't hear us squawking. What we object to is that its main purpose is as another way to open a sentence. That's not the purpose, and it's almost always-- when used for that purpose-- awkward and very often ungrammatical.

Editors and agents know the difference between a PPP used for the right reason, and one used for the wrong reason.

Okay, we need to think about a post with different ways to open sentences. :)

Alicia

Jami G. said...

Teresa & Alicia,

After learning about all the times when it's incorrect to use PPPs, most of mine now fall into the category of one clause contains the action and the other clause contains the character's reasoning behind the action. These two things seem like they can be simultaneous. Here's a simplistic example: "She sighed, knowing he had a point."

Is this incorrect for some reason? Should we be avoiding these too?

Thanks!
Jami G.

Murphy said...

Thanks Alicia!
But I think I better qualify what I meant. I didn't mean to change the opening of a sentence just because - I meant that I could have used short and to the point sentences - but the action and flow of the story within a specific paragraph felt disrupted doing it this way - well, maybe disrupted is not the right word, maybe the structure of the paragraph - given what came before and what was to follow it - just seemed to call for the change. Does that make sense?

Peter Cooper said...

Garth Nix - Sabriel.

Sentences on page 178 - 12.
Number of present participles - 16.

That's a lot of PPP's.

em said...

I don't use them but I tend to err on the side of caution.:)

MitMoi said...

Anita Shreve - Sea Glass

Sentences on pg 156 - 30 Sentences
ppp's 0

Second spin: pg 284 - 14 sentences

ppp's 0

Now going back to the WIP to see how badly I've abused it. *sigh*

MitMoi said...

"A brewing thunderstorm clouded his face."

N= thunderstorm? or face?, v=clouded

ppp = "brewing" because it describes the noun of thunderstorm? Which means that face isn't the noun. It's some other mystery part of grammar. But not the gerund, which would let me off the hook, right?

rachel.capps said...

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen.

Sentences: 20
PPPs: 0

I wonder how much an editor would have altered her work ...

A good lessoned learned. Thanks, Theresa.

Peter Cooper said...

OK, at risk of airing my ignorance for all to see, maybe I've misunderstood the definition of a PPP. Take this sentence from Sabriel.

Gray mist coiling upwards, twining around him like a clinging vine, gripping arms and legs, immobilising, strangling, merciless.

By my count, there are 6 PPP's in that sentence - "coiling", "twining", "gripping", "immobilising" and "strangling" all modify the noun "mist", while "clinging" modifies vine.

Am I right - or have I missed something? It seems odd that the book I grabbed has so many, when everyone elses has hardly any at all.

Edittorrent said...

Jamie G said:
After learning about all the times when it's incorrect to use PPPs, most of mine now fall into the category of one clause contains the action and the other clause contains the character's reasoning behind the action. These two things seem like they can be simultaneous. Here's a simplistic example: "She sighed, knowing he had a point."


Well, notice that you make that a TRAILING phrase, not an intro phrase. The intro participles are the annoying ones.

Notice what you're doing here. You are thinking about what you mean, and what will convey that best. I don't care WHAT comes out of a process like that-- it doesn't have to be what I would do or advise. I know you have thought about it and FELT what's right for your situation. That's good enough for me.

Meaning is what matters. Conveying to the reader is what matters. Whatever works to do that is good. (Yes, even participial phrases can work if they work-- but they work because they increase the meaning.)
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

This is so bizarre. I posted a comment in response to Jami and Jordan this afternoon. It was the comment immediately following Kathleen, but now it's gone.

fwiw, I gave Jordan a gold star. :)

And I posted an example of how to change an introductory PPP into a prepositional phrase. Let me see if I can remember the examples.

Fluttering her fan, she danced out of his reach.

To,

With a flutter of her fan, she danced out of his reach.

Gosh, it's really bugging me that my comment vanished. I'm going to go tinker with the blog management stuff and see if I can figure out what happened.

Theresa,
who has no beef with fragments

Edittorrent said...

MitMoi said...

"A brewing thunderstorm clouded his face."

N= thunderstorm? or face?, v=clouded

ppp = "brewing" because it describes the noun of thunderstorm? Which means that face isn't the noun. It's some other mystery part of grammar. But not the gerund, which would let me off the hook, right?


I'm not sure what you mean here. "Brewing" is indeed a participle, but just a participle, not a participial phrase. And it's used as an adjective modifying a noun (storm). That's fine.

The (article) brewing (adjective) thunderstorm (noun) = all that is the "subject".

clouded (verb-- past tense)

his (possessive pronoun, modifying the noun) face (noun)= this is the direct object, answering "what was clouded?"

Nouns are parts of speech. They are not elements of the sentence. "The subject" is an element of the sentence. "The object" is another element of the sentence. They are usually both nouns, but nouns are just words. The position and role of the noun in the sentence determines what element it plays. But you can have several nouns in a sentence, playing either object or subject roles (or objects of a preposition, but should we go there?).

Don't get too technical. Think about what works and what doesn't work. We're saying participial phrases at the start of sentences often don't work and certainly don't work as often as they're used. (You're using a participle, not a phrase, and correctly.) But if and when a participial phrase works, we notice. We just notice that usually they don't work. :)

Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen.

Sentences: 20
PPPs: 0

I wonder how much an editor would have altered her work ...

Back then? Not much. (She might well have had an editor-- I don't know enough about how publishers worked then-- but she didn't self-publish, did she?) Her sentences seem long to us because they're early 19th C, but they weren't particularly ornate for the time.

Editors are NOT enemies of a writer's voice-- at least good editors aren't. It's all about meaning. We aren't talking about rules here, but meaning. If a participial phrase helps the meaning, a good editor will notice that. :)

But notice, even with ornate 19th C sentences-- no participial phrases. Hmm. I was going to use Dickens to show how earlier English writers used more, but now I wonder... maybe he didn't. Must check.
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Peter said:
Gray mist coiling upwards, twining around him like a clinging vine, gripping arms and legs, immobilising, strangling, merciless.

By my count, there are 6 PPP's in that sentence - "coiling", "twining", "gripping", "immobilising" and "strangling" all modify the noun "mist", while "clinging" modifies vine.



Yeah, lots of participles (not all are phrases, note). NOT a sentence, however, just a series of participles. So what does that do? (Of course, you wouldn't do this with most sentences-- this is for effect.)

The fragmentary but long thought with all those participles mimicks the "trailing" tendrilish nature of what is going on, Can you feel the wisps? The floating tendrils?

So in this case, the participles are used to convey the nature of the moment or scene or experience, the floaty etherealness of it.

As I said, if it works, it works. Here, I think it works (though I sure hope the next sentence is an actual complete sentence). :)

Alicia

Jami G. said...

Teresa and Alicia,

Thank you so much for your clarification - I'm not freaking out over my WIP anymore. :) I'll admit, I still have some that lead off sentences (about 1 per 750 words), but I'm now making sure that there's a good reason for it and that it's as short as possible so there's not a big, long clause where the reader is confused as to who is doing the action. Thanks for telling us to watch out for this.

And thanks for your examples of ways to get rid of the intro PPPs, Teresa. That's exactly what I've been trying to do to fix them and I'm glad I'm doing it right. :)

Thanks!
Jami G.

Jami G. said...

Egads! I just realized I had a dangling modifier in my earlier post. :) Bad, blog follower, bad...

I should have said "After learning about all the times when it's incorrect to use PPPs, I now have most of mine fall into the category of one clause contains the action and the other clause contains the character's reasoning behind the action." (Go ahead, Murphy, I know you want to laugh at me... LOL!)

Jordan McCollum said...

Hooray! I'm right! Gold star!

I needed that :D .

Leona said...

Good for you Jordan!

Jami and co.,

Thanks for asking the questions. And big thanks to Alicia and Theresa for answering them so eloquently.

I think I'm finally starting to see daylight in the difference, and I'm more than afraid to look at my WIPs. I'm sure I have at least one as I get lazy about grammar etc as ideas bubble forth. I'm also sure that I'm not looking for the PPPS.

I'm with Murphy (from now on I think I'll shorten this to *IWM*:). I tend to use phrases for change up and I'm absolutely posive I have some beginning participle phrases. Groan. Back to the drawing, er, writing board.

Good luck Jami and Murphy and to anyone else trying to find a way to NOT have to change the participle problem. LOL

word verification = gibberse The universe of gibberish. AKA slush pile

Katrina Stonoff said...

A little behind in this conversation, but I picked up The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.

Page 127
28 sentences
0 PPPs

P. 202
25 sentences
0 PPPs

Wow. That was certainly a surprise! Guess I've got some work to do.

I have four PPPs in the first chapter. I might keep one of them, but three exist only to vary the sentence structure. Oops.

Thanks!