Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Trouble with Gerunds, and the Use Therein

I was asked by another instructor, "What is your problem with gerunds?"

My problem with gerunds... Well, I'm the first to say that constructions and parts of speech wouldn't exist in the language without a purpose, and writers should never willingly abandon any potential tool in creating meaning. I just did a blog -- absurdly controversial, for sure-- asserting my defense of the use of adverbs in quote tags ("she said defensively"). You'd be amazed at the number of writers who happily assert their fealty to Hemingwayesque terseness and their vow never to let a modifier cross their keyboard. 

However, there's a time and a place, and any word form should be used aptly, to create or deepen meaning. So it would be not only unwise but also perhaps reckless to use an adverb that merely repeated the verb-- she shouted loudly. (She whispered loudly, however, is interesting.)  Words and speech parts have conventional functions, and when they're used "wrongly," the wrongness itself should be for some desired effect, as there has to be a convention to rebel against, thus the rebellion is dependent on both reader and writer understanding (perhaps only intuitively) the convention.

So the convention of having a period only at the end of the sentence sets up for the unexpected pleasure of a staccato phrase like "Worst. Night. Ever." If we always punctuated for "sound" rather than for sense (the period separates one idea from another), then period would happen all over the place, and there'd be no convention to rebel against. (That's what I try to tell those writers who are sure that one-sentence paragraphs are so exciting, you know-- "Not if you do it all the time!")

Anyway. Gerunds. Gerunds, like participles, are verbals, that is, they start with the verb form and change shape to create a new form and function. Now I am coming at this from the writing standpoint, not a linguistic one-- I'm hopeless there-- and as a writer, I do have more use for certain types of words and little use for others. So I get judgmental! And one thing I notice is that almost always, when a writer starts with a gerund or a participle, things go wrong. Just my observation, but once my co-blogger (we're both really harsh on introductory participial phrases, esp in fiction) challenged our readers to pull out a book they like, and pick out a page at random, and count the introductory participial phrases. They reported back, very surprised to find that the books they very much liked might have one of these IPPs, or none, on a page, but that most sentences were either variations of SVO, or a compound SVO, or maybe might have a prepositional phrase before the subject ("Last summer, we enjoyed Chardonnay at every stop in the Alps.") That is, I am not alone in "hearing" a bumptious grunt when a sentence starts that way. Of course, there is a reason for an IPP-- when the main action of the sentence occurs simultaneously with another action-- "Travelling in France, I developed an addiction for white wine and cassoulet." However, the purpose many of our commenters identified for the IPP had nothing to do with simultaneity of action, and everything to do with what had nothing to do with meaning and yet they considered important: Varying the opening of sentences. I tend to think if each sentence means something new, repetition of phrasing won't be a problem, and if it is, sentence combining is probably a more graceful way to vary rhythm. 

So... what has this to do with gerunds. Well, gerunds, like participles, are verbals. They started life as verbs. They are verblike things used as nouns. It is common in English and other languages for words to migrate from one part of speech to another, maybe changing some aspect, maybe not. ("Walk" the verb and "walk" the noun are distinguished only in context.) A gerund usually has the "ing" of a present participle (which can be an adjective or part of a verb-- "I am the attending physician, and I am attending the lecture") but takes on the role of a noun. Now that I think of it, gerunds used later in the sentence (same with participles) don't much bother me. ("I like swimming.") It's when a gerund is used as a subject that sentences often go astray. Why?

Hmm. Well, you know, with participles, Theresa says, "There are three things that can happen with participles, and two of them are bad." A participle can dangle, or be "squinting"-- isn't that a great term? And I'll add that when participles are made of stative verbs like "to be," they are generally unnecessary. ("Being an accountant, I'm good with numbers." Hmm. My being good with numbers is a result of my being an accountant? The two beings happen simultaneously? This connection might not be incorrect, but it's near to meaningless, and certainly doesn't give the vigorous impact I want of my sentences.) I'd also expand the "things that can go wrong with participles" to include another-- when the participle action is not simultaneous to the main action: Running down the stairs, I tied my shoes.

I like to think none of these would happen in our prose. However, I see these all the time, in theoretically edited work like articles in major magazines.

Where was I? Gerunds. Gerunds, like participles, have their birth in verbs. And so the whole point of a gerund, I suppose, is that it retains some of the qualities of a verb while taking on the role of a noun.  Well, like participles, gerunds should probably be connected to action (that is, not a stative verb, so "Knowing" as in the example is already problematic). Why? Well, stative verbs refer to -conditions- and so are not dynamic or "moving."  Stative verbs have an important function in that they express a condition or state. We aren't always inevitably in motion, and the stative verbs let us refer to objects/persons/nouns as having merely condition-- the conditions of being, having, and knowing being the most common. 

But most verbs are dynamic, and in fact we refer to verbs as "action words" because they fulfill a function really no other words can do, to show the motion and change of the nouns. "I ran across the room." How can we say that without the action word "ran" or a synonymous verb like "dashed?"

So anyway, when a gerund leaves verbhood to become a noun, what verbiness does it retain? Why use a verbal rather than a noun?  (Most gerunds have counterpart nouns, after all-- "knowing" has "knowledge." Interesting-- 'understanding" has "AN understanding"-- two different words, as one's a gerund -- no article-- and the other is a noun.) Well, if not the element of action (in a stative verb like "knowing"), the verb element is probably that this requires at least an implied subject (noun or pronoun). This isn't unprecedented. After all, a participle has an implied subject (whoever is doing the participle action), and when that conflicts with the adjacent sentence subject, the participle is said to dangle.

Is there such a thing as a "dangling gerund?" I don't know, but I think if we have a subject of "knowing," there's an implied actor in there-- "the one who has the knowing." That is, "knowledge," as a noun, can exist without someone or something making it happen. A rock is a rock. But "rocking?" there's a hand or a cradle or something in there with it. Knowledge, I'd say, can exist without a knower. That library over there exists even if no one enters it and reads. There are no doubt articles in obscure journals which are never read (I've written a couple of those :), yet that knowledge exists. Nouns exist. They are form. 

But "knowing?" Can that exist without a knower? Or does it maintain that verb quality, that if there's an action or a condition, there must be something experiencing it or causing it? 

So... long way around. I'm looking at that example clause (simplified to a SV -- subject/verb clause-- always a good technique with these complicated sentences, I think): "Knowing.... highlights and underscores." Whose knowing does that? Who has to know for the highlighting and underscoring to happen? If there is "knowing," doesn't there have to be a "knower"? 

The subject of the sentence should be important, I think. It's high-priced sentence real estate. What is doing what? With "knowing," I would be asking, "Who has to know for this to happen?"
Hmm. This all made sense a minute ago. Let's try another gerund with a perfectly good noun counterpart.

Experience (noun) is the best teacher.
Experiencing is the best teacher.

The second one begs for amplification: Who is doing this experiencing?

I know it's not really different from using the noun. But it is. By forcing in the verb aspect, we're inviting the reader to ask, "Who? What?" when we don't do that when we start with an equivalent noun.  
Often we put the implied subject later in the sentence, like.. Experiencing is the only way I learn. or  Knowing history helps journalists highlight and underscore patterns in political behavior.

As I said, I think this is more a problem-- more awkward-- early in the sentence, because the reader hasn't had enough cumulative knowledge of the sentence to make sense of this. Later, when the reader has absorbed the most of the meaning, he'll find it easier to parse the more anomalous elements. Context is all, and the beginning of the sentence establishes the context.

I certainly don't mean to ban any writing tool. I am, after all, the modifier's most stalwart defender. (Take that, EB White!!) And most of my antagonism to gerunds in the subject position is aesthetic (generally, they sound wrong). But I'd also ask, am I nuts here to think that there's an implied subject (or should be) with a gerund, and a subject shouldn't have an implied subject? 

I keep coming back to that notion that sentence order matters a whole lot-- that what's perfectly fine at the end of the sentence might not be as useful at the beginning. 

Does this make any sense? Are there examples in your writing or reading where gerunds as subjects have been more effective than a counterpart noun would have been? I know there are examples. ("Knowing" really is different from "knowledge".) I think that this might be more effective when there's a -process-, again, a more active word, like "Babysitting spoiled rich kids paid my way through college." (Notice that the implied subject is manifested in "my".)


James Pray said...

Nice rambly post, but yep, makes sense to me. I really don't like those constructions -- I can't think of a time I ever felt cornered into using one (in final-draft prose) because there was no other way to get a sentence to do what I wanted.

When you mentioned the "sentence variety" reasoning, it highlighted something for me: some writers can get so hung up on avoiding repetition that they resort to gymnastics that are more distracting by far. Some repetition is as good as invisible to the reader, while attempts to cull it out are monumentally distracting (dialog tags being a prime example). Opening with a gerund seems like an easy go-to tool for varying sentence openings, but I think that 1) that's not really what it's "for", and 2) if varying sentence openings is turning into a desperate editing issue in the first place, it's probably not a "mechanical"/prose-level problem.

ABE said...


The very first thing I did was to scuttle over to my WIP to check whether there are any gerunds in the wrong places, with a deep fear in my soul that I might have this particular flaw.

Super glad to say there wasn't a single one in the current scene.

My writing is heavily dependent on a gestalt of what is 'right' gained from huge amounts of reading, as I grew up in Mexico and have had no formal instruction in writing my native language since first grade. As a result, I am always learning, especially from blogs such as yours.

The biggest problem for me as a reader is that, once I notice a particular awkward construction in a book, and that construction is repeated because it is part of the writer's arsenal, I just can't finish.

It really makes me appreciate writers who DON'T have all the awkward little mannerisms.

Clare Wilson said...

Interestingly enough, in Latin it is impossible to have a gerund for a subject - the form doesn't even exist - but you can have one for any other function. It seems that you and the grammarians of the Classical age are in sync on this subject!

Edittorrent said...

James, good line about gymnastics. The sentences end up meaning something wrong because the writers aren't thinking of meaning.

ABE, I'd say default to simpler sentences, and complicate only if needed. alas, most of us start the other way-- we have to simplify the complicated!

James Pray said...

I'm not sure I'd advocate starting with complicated sentences for everyone, but it's a big part of my writing process -- my first drafts are awash in monstrous 5-line multi-semicolon sentences, and then I render those down later by stripping out whatever's bland, trite, generic, repetitious, etc. during my editing passes. This seems to leave me with stronger prose, or at least to get me there sooner, than spending a lot of editing time honing and building up from simpler stuff. It's probably worth noting that I like editing better than drafting, though.