In the wake of Theresa's provocative exercise about checking published work for PPPs (present participial phrases, Murphy asks:
...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.
Theresa and I generally agree, but we REALLY agree on this. I mean, we've had heated discussions that peter out because there's nothing to discuss and nothing to get heated about. We agree. PPPs, especially at the start of a sentence, are seldom eloquent and quite often ungrammatical, and we agree that starting many sentences with a PPP is something we see mostly in unsophisticated writers. (We keep blogging about this very subject, in fact.)
So we agree. We more than agree. We-- this is God's honest truth-- send each other examples of danglers we find in submissions. I know, I know. But really, "Chasing his tail, I called for Rover," THAT is a great joke. I mean, David Letterman should have a segment of Top Ten Dangling Participles.
But we also agree that even if you avoid dangling your participles (and really, the more participial phrases you have, the more likely you'll dangle many of them), PPPs are problems, not always, but often, and they become more of a problem when they're in a phrase, and even more when they're in an introductory phrase. (Much discussion from both of us in the participle thread here.)
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?
Well, the desire for that to be the purpose doesn't make it so. Maybe I want the purpose of my dishwasher to be washing clothes... but its actual purpose is washing dishes. (You know, I actually tried to make the purpose of "laundry detergent" to be "substituting for the dishwashing detergent I forgot to pick up at the grocery," and it was a disaster. I don't understand why this perfectly sensible substitute caused suds to spill out of the dishwasher and cover the entire kitchen floor a foot deep. Boy, what a mess.)
The purpose of the participle is to modify a noun with an action simultaneous to the action the noun is performing. (There are other parts of speech that end in -ing, btw-- a gerund is an verb-ing word that takes the role of a noun in a sentence-- Failing is my biggest fear. Getting lost is often the start of adventure.) That's it. The purpose is not to start a sentence any more than the purpose of a noun is to start a sentence. Sometimes sentences start that way, but almost any part of speech or syntactical element can start a sentence in English-- the English sentence is quite flexible.
But let's get real here. We all try to vary the openings of our sentences. No one wants to have six sentences in a row starting the same way. Sentence variety is a perfectly good goal. (I am going to be all pedantic and say that we should aim at making meaningful sentences that help the reader fully experience the action, and if we do that, our sentences will have plenty of variety. But I do notice that sometimes we have five sentences in a row starting with "he," and that's when we look for another way to open one or two of them.)
That is a valid aim. But the aim is not "varying sentence openings," really, is it? It's "making the passage read well," and how to accomplish that will depend on the passage purpose, your voice, the pacing, where you are in the scene (I bet at the end of a scene, your sentences might be shorter or longer), all sorts of things.
And sentences are rhythmic and euphonious not in isolation, but in connection-- within the paragraph. And you know, just as where the paragraph is in the scene matters, so does where the sentence is in the paragraph. The first sentence in a paragraph might open differently-- more decisively, perhaps, or with a "time transition" like "Two weeks ago--" from later sentences.
(I must pause to point out that "euphonious" is a very un-euphonious word. It's like "abbreviation" and "monosyllable"-- they are not what they mean. :)
I must admit that I think sportswriters are often the best journalistic stylists out there, more conscious of voice and effect than the often leaden political writers. So I read Sports Illustrated not just for the sports news, but for the often powerful writing. Here's an opening from a recent article about Marc Buoniconti, who was paralyzed in a college game (yes, he's Nick's son):
Henry Mull was 13 years old then, poor and sports-mad and hardly intrigued by the long view. Who is at 13? So, no, he never thought about the odd ways lives can meld—not in the hours before his neck got snapped, and certainly not in the hours after. Strangers sliced the shoulder pads and helmet off the Middleton Junior High quarterback and sped him through the streets of Tampa to the hospital, where more strangers shaved his head, their voices and faces and hands fluttering while he lay terrified. His mother hadn't arrived yet. "Am I going to play ball again?" he asked. Now someone was pressing a metallic device to his head, now eight grim-faced people were holding down his arms and legs. Whatever anesthetic they used, it didn't take. The boy screamed when they screwed the first four-inch bolt into one side of his skull, just above the ear. He kept it up as they twisted in the second, screaming all the way into blackness.
Now I just chose that story because it's online so I didn't have to type it in. But like so many SI articles, this article has an elegant but vivid opening. See how concrete it is, the precision and yet relevance of the details (four-inch bolt, just above ear). Look at the powerful but familiar verbs: screwed, twisted. There are even some participles (though I don't think any participial phrases): screaming, fluttering (notice those are active, none of that being and having deadwood). (No, "pressing" doesn't count, in my estimation, because it's -- with "was"-- the progressive form of the verb, and doesn't count as a participle-- it's not a modifier but part of the verb. Not all -ing words are participles, only the adjectival ones.)
But notice that most of the sentences start with the subject and proceed pretty quickly to the predicate (verb):
Henry Mull was
His mother hadn't arrived
The boy screamed
He kept it up
Also notice most of those use transitive verbs which transfer the action to an object:
Strangers (subject) sliced (verb) the shoulder pads and helmet (direct objects) off
Why is that important? Well, first, the SVO is the basic sentence form in English (not in all languages). Also transitive verbs are usually action verbs, and action verbs, natch, make the passage feel more active. And direct objects keep the sentence concrete-- this is not purposeless action, what this subject is doing, but purposeful-- the action is being done to something.
What other openings are there?
Two sentences have transitions before the SVO-- very efficient:
So, no, he never thought
Now someone was pressing
These are efficient transitions because in a single word, they each convey a connection to a previous sentence. "So" makes a causal connection -- Because he is only 13, he doesn't think about this.
"Now" makes a time connection. The previous sentence was "then," before, and this is "now."
Let me point out that these single-word transitions serve to mask the opening without hiding it, so if you have too many "he" openings, this might be a good variation. :)
Then there are two questions:
Who is at 13?
"Am I going to play ball again?"
(I note that this ends with the quote tag he asked. The author could have started with that, and it would then be a standard SVO construction. He asked, "Am I going to play ball again?" The quote then is the direct object. You see how that simple, completely conventional switch, quote tag last, varies the opening by putting the object first-- and this is an object that starts with a verb. Elegant!)
Then there's one that is a compound sentence (two independent clauses), but the first clause has a OSV construction (whatever anesthetic is the object of they used). (And to complicate, the entire first clause is the antecedent to that pronoun "it".)
Whatever anesthetic they used, it didn't take.
So half of the sentences start with the subject. I bet you didn't read that paragraph and think, "All those sentences start the same!" That's because they don't.
Someone else, plural
The boy (not name)
So three sentences start with Henry, but not the word Henry. Name, descriptor, pronoun.
Two sentences start with transition words before the subject.
Two start with question markers (the relative pronoun-- who, and notice this gives a SVO construction for the question-- and the inverted verb-subject order -- Am I).
Not an intro participial phrase in there. (Or a trailing one, for that matter.) There's not even a prepositional opening, though there could be (prepositions usually indicate some time or space positioning): Just above his ear, they screwed in a four-inch bolt.
And there are no introductory dependent clauses, though again there could be:
When they screwed the first four-inch bolt into one side of his skull, just above the ear, the boy screamed.
So... does this paragraph work, I guess is the first question. I think it does, but what do you think?
And if so, why does it work? Why does the emphasis on SVO construction work?
I think that it's meant to be immediate, concrete, visual, vivid, experiential. The passage is meant to put the reader right there in the scene. So the sentence openings aren't cluttered with extraneous detail or -- this is important-- minor elements or actions. The openings are forceful and focused, because the purpose of the paragraph is to get the reader into the action.
The virtue of the SVO construction is its efficiency in transmitting the experience and action. There's no distraction from that.
Other elements opening a sentence have many uses, but they can DISTRACT from the conveyance of that simple action/experience. That's fine... for some situations. For some purposes. For some passages. For some voices.
Well, here's an excerpt from the wonderful Lemony Snicket novel A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning:
Their misfortune began one day at Briny Beach. The three Baudelaire children lived with their parents in an enormous mansion at the heart of a dirty and busy city, and occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley-the word "rickety," you probably know, here means "unsteady" or "likely to collapse"-alone to the seashore, where they would spend the day as a sort of vacation as long as they were home for dinner. This particular morning it was gray and cloudy, which didn't bother the Baudelaire youngsters one bit. When it was hot and sunny, Briny Beach was crowded with tourists and it was impossible to find a good place to lay one's blanket. On gray and cloudy days, the Baudelaires had the beach to themselves to do what they liked.
So why would he start the paragraph with declarative (though hardly simple) sentences? And then end with three sentences that start with introductory phrases and clauses (the last two properly followed by a comma, please note :)? None of these are participial phrases- one (When) is a dependent clause, and the other two are prepositional phrases (the This particular phrase has the implied "on"-- On this particular day).
Introductory elements like these "qualify"-- they impose or explain some condition usually. Now often they will also work in the middle or the end of the sentence (as I said, the English sentence is flexible), but we tend to put things first, before the main clause, when we want the reader to have that sense BEFORE reading the main action of the sentence. So if you want the reader to have the "gray and cloudy day" in mind first, you put it first. Look how automatically I put "if" clauses first-- "If you want the reader...." That's because usually (certainly not always) the main clause is so circumscribed by the condition, you need the condition first to get the right "feel" of the constriction.
A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. Most people live in denial of Death’s patient courtship until, late in life and deep in sickness, they become aware of him sitting bedside.
Eventually, Mitchell Rafferty would be able to cite the minute that he began to recognize the inevitability of his death: Monday, May 14, 11:43 in the morning–three weeks short of his twenty-eighth birthday.
Until then, he had rarely thought of dying. A born optimist, charmed by nature’s beauty and amused by humanity, he had no cause or inclination to wonder when and how his mortality would be proven.
When the call came, he was on his knees.
The Husband by Dean Koontz
Again, there are no PPPs. The blue-fonted phrases charmed by nature’s beauty and amused by humanity are past participial phrases, not present. They are descriptors, amplifying what is meant by "a born optimist".
Here's another, from A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini:
It was true. Mariam didn't remember. And though she would live the first fifteen years of her life within walking distance of Herat, Mariam would never see this storied tree. She would never see the famous minarets up close, and she would never pick fruit from Herat's orchards or stroll in its fields of wheat. But whenever Jalil talked like this, Mariam would listen with enchantment. She would admire Jalil for his vast and worldly knowledge. She would quiver with pride to have a father who knew such things.
Here, there are two dependent clauses here. No participial phrases.
Finally! I'm telling you, I have scanned lots of excerpts, chosen at random (I looked at Dickens and Faulkner too, just to get a sense of earlier novels, and found the same thing) and this is the FIRST introductory participial phrase I've seen, from A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin:
"Marty!" His girlfriend's snarl. "Be seeing you, Shiv." Still grinning, he walked backwards for a few paces, then turned away. Siobhan had headed straight back over to St. Leonard's to reacquaint herself with his file. An hour later, the switchboard had put through a call. It was him, phoning from a bar. She'd put the receiver down. Ten minutes later, he'd called again . . . and then another ten after that.
That's it-- "Still grinning."
What does that tell you? It tells me that in published works, introductory participial phrases are NOT a common way of starting a sentence-- which is just what Theresa's exercise showed.
How about trying this-- take a couple pages of a book you like, and highlight every introductory element, even the one word ones. And think about why the element is in the sentence, and why it's at the beginning-- what additional meaning does that placement create?
But don't stop there. Keep note of the many ways you can start a sentence. But the point isn't to vary a sentence for the sake of variation. If you look for the best way to convey the meaning of the sentence, you'll find the best way to order the sentence elements. It helps to know lots of different possibilities, to hear those options in your head as you write and revise. But don't strew them around. Consider the purpose of the sentence, its placement in the paragraph. (I notice that often the paragraphs above break into two parts, the first half with intro elements and the second half without or vice versa. That is, the same sentence might be ordered differently in a different part of the paragraph-- if it's introducing something, or making a conclusion, you might order it differently.)
The way we convey meaning in English is primarily through sentence order (and paragraph order, I think). So don't give up that tool by arbitrarily choosing sentence order on the basis of something other than meaning. Make the meaning happen, and I'll bet that your sentences will sound just fine.
(But I can't help but point out that introductory participial phrases seldom add much meaning. If they do, however, good! :)
So how about some examples of sentence openings that are meaningful-- and why you put this element there and that here.