Saturday, October 4, 2008

Modifiers = Change

Let's build off the ideas in my last post about present participial phrases and how to use them. In that post, we were mostly talking about placement issues. (Modifiers go next to the words they modify, right? Right.)

This time, let's take a look at a common mistake made with present participial phrases that signify an underlying weakness in the main clause rather than a technical problem with the participial phrase. Take a look at this sample sentence.

She danced alone in the empty ballroom, twirling and jumping as if nobody could see her.

What Is a Modifier?

We've already made the point that present participial phrases are modifiers which either function as adjectives (modifying a single noun) or as cumulative modifiers (modifying a clause in its entirety). But what about the present participial phrase in our sample sentence above? What, exactly does it modify?

verb, transitive
1. to restrict the meaning of a grammatical construction
2. to make minor changes in
3. to make basic or fundamental changes in, often to give a new orientation to or to serve a new end

Modifiers change the meaning of existing words or groups of words. Those changes can be big or small, but they are still changes.

So here's where we run into our problem. Sometimes a main clause is so inherently weak that a writer instinctively knows it needs more oomph, but instead of fixing the weak main clause, they tack on a present participial phrase that restates the main clause without really modifying it.

alone in the ballroom = as if nobody could see her

If she's alone in the ballroom, presumably nobody can see her. Unless they can see through walls? Or have some kind of hidden cameras? But then the sentence should be altered to reflect that.

She danced alone in the ballroom, heedless of the tiny security cameras mounted along the musicians' gallery.

Or, preferably,

Heedless of the tiny security cameras mounted along the musicians' gallery, she danced alone in the ballroom.

Now the modifying phrase adds a new dimension to the sentence rather than just restating the main clause.

For that matter, twirling and jumping really just restate danced. They're more specific and vibrant than danced, but danced is a perfectly respectable verb. I'm not sure that it needs that kind of restatement. Isn't twirling and jumping more or less implied in the act of dancing? Hmm.

In any event, we see sentences like that all the time, and the usual fix is to cut ruthlessly to eliminate the repetitions. Pick the action word that has more precision and the noun with more built-in description, and dump the rest.

She fell to the ground, dropping suddenly onto the hard earth


She dropped suddenly onto the hard earth.

(And we might cut the adverb while we're at it.)



Ian said...



I LOVE adverbs! A good adverb dances ever so trippingly off the tongue, perfectly capturing the sense of phrase you wish to convey. Of course, I only write bad adverbs embarrassedly.

(one of my friends will lynch me for that last one)

In my current WIP, I'm going back through stuff I wrote three years ago before I understood any of this participial phraseology and voice and such and chiseling away large chunks of crap to find a pretty good story underneath.

I couldn't do it without yours and Alicia's constant lessons here. I'm glad you all don't charge us for this! And don't go getting any sneaky ideas about it now that I've brought it up, either. ;)

Unknown said...

Ian -- I will punch you not only for writing "embarrassedly" (and by the way, my browser's spell check is flagging that word, thereby making Bentley Little the worst published author EVER), but I will also punch you for professing your love of adverbs. ;)

Yes, I am a professed adverb hater; although, I do recognize them as a necessary evil in certain contexts.

By the way, I love this blog. I have also been guilty of using the present participial in such a way. I've always known it was grammatically wrong, but that never stopped me from doing it. Old habits die hard. lol

Edittorrent said...

Ian, I take the super-double-banana-split approach to adverbs. You can have them on occasion. And when you do have them, make 'em count.

Nothing is ever completely off limits. For some things, overuse is a bigger sin than use.

Allie D, thanks! :) I wish my browser had a spellchecker.

Jean Wogaman said...

Thanks for another helpful post.

Rachel said...

This post made me feel ashamed.

A vital, if painful lesson to learn. Thanks. :)

(And I'm with allie on punching Ian to bits for being an adverb lover. I also hate adverbs. ;) )