Thursday, June 25, 2009

Participles redux

Now I'm going to quote Theresa again-- There are three things that can happen with participial phrases, and two of them are bad, so play the odds and avoid them when you can.

I know why writers use participles at the beginning of sentences, and it has very little to do with the actual function of participles (to show simultaneity of action). Writers do this because they want to vary the front of sentence-- They don't want every sentence to begin with the subject noun.

Okay, that's a laudable aim. But the problem is, starting a sentence is only accidentally a major function of a participial phrase, and yet many writers make it the ONLY function. So they use it in all sorts of sentences where simultaneity of action isn't a factor or shouldn't be emphasized. They don't notice what's important about the sentence and over-emphasize (or invent) something just so they can bury the real sentence lead with a participle.

(At some point, I'll suggest other ways to open sentences. At this point, just let me say that a participle opener is often a mark of unsophistication, yes, more so than a simple subject opening.)

Here are the sorts of issues I'm seeing in submissions which rely too much on what "sounds" to me like a clumsy, clunky opening.

1) Participles can often be dangling modifiers. In fact, if you use a lot of opening participial phrases, I bet half of them are dangling. That's because, frankly, if you don't understand your sentence-- what the central idea or action is, who's doing what-- you probably aren't aware of what the subject is. Quick rule (and this is not MY rule, though it would be if I were the one making the rules-- it's a good rule :)-- The committer of the action in the participle should be the subject of the following main clause.
Here's a dangling modifier:
Taking hold of him like a vise, he couldn't stop the rising fear.
Now it's possible that he is taking hold of himself like a vise, I guess. But that's not what the author meant. The author meant the FEAR was taking hold of him. So say so.
The fear took hold of him like a vise.
or if you want to get his inability to stop in there:
He couldn't stop the fear from taking hold of him like a vise. (The "from" isn't needed-- I think it just sounded better at that moment.)
If you want to use participial phrases, expect that you're going to dangle some of them. So go back and check! Familiarize yourself with the rules about dangling modifiers (not all danglers are participles, of course). Check every single sentence opening. If you don't find all the danglers, you can bet the editor will.

2. "Participle" means simultaneous or near-simultaneous actions. So you should be considering this type of construction only if two actions are happening at the same time (or so close in time it seems simultaneous or sequential) AND if they belong together-- committed by the same person, first off! And mere simultaneity probably isn't sufficient reason to put them together in one sentence. What works? A cause-and-effect relationship, maybe:
Surveying the fruit, she chose a peach.
Tapping on the vault, she decided she could break in.
(I almost never use intro participles, so you can see I'm clumsy! Maybe you can do better-- good causal participles.)
Taking a deep breath, he turned the doorknob.
Picking up his pen, he prepared to sign his life away.
Breathing deeply, she swung the bat around.
Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and he vanished. (Comma and new clause-- why? Because the vanishing happens after-- maybe one sequential action works, but two are pushing if in the same clause.)

3. For some reason, body parts make for the worst participles, or at least the most laughable results.
Beating hard, he almost lost heart.
Striding forward, his footsteps echoed in the corridor.

Body parts aren't characters. Check. Always check. Always check.

4. Even "legal" participles can be wrong because two actions don't work together. Theresa found a terrific one (yes, we do collect these!):
Running down the stairs, she tied her shoes.
Just because two actions have some connection -- both involving shoes?-- and occur in the same basic timeframe doesn't mean this is the right construction.
She tied her shoes and ran down the stairs. What's wrong with that? It starts with "she"? That is hardly the worst thing that can happen with a sentence. (Theresa and I adding it to our "perverted participle" list as we chortle wickedly-- that's much, much worse.) It's a perfectly good sentence, where the order of words replicates the order of action. Good.

Here's one where there's no reason shown they should be linked:
Gazing at her, he took the change.
Why are you putting those two things together? If you mean that because he couldn't stop gazing at her, he missed some of the change and sent a penny rolling off the counter into the Reese's Pieces box, SAY SO. If you are alleging a connection, show it.

5. Participles are ACTIONS. There's no reason to create a participle and invite all the problems that come along if there aren't two actions involved. So rethink any intro phrase that starts with "being" or "having" or other static verbals, like:
Being a transit cop, Johnny was suspicious of soccer fans.
(Okay, FOOTBALL fans, and I'll go with that because of the US team's amazing victory over Spain yesterday.)

That works just fine as:
As a transit cop, Johnny was suspicious of football fans.

The reverse (static -- stative or reflexive-- verb in the main clause) is not a lot better:
Regarding her closely, he had beautiful blue eyes.
I presume he ALWAYS has blue eyes, and I bet they're usually beautiful, but this construction indicates that this is only true when he's regarding her.

What's a static verb? Verbs that aren't about action. So feeling and thinking and wondering and loving and having and being-- those are not good in a participial phrase or in a main clause coupled with a participial phrase. If you don't have two actions, consider whether a participial construction is really your best bet.

Sticking two events in the same sentence doesn't mean they are linked. I can't decide whether this is laziness ("I don't want to do the work of writing sentences that actually show connections") or a misunderstanding of the purpose of a sentence. In a good sentence, all the elements in the sentence are there because they belong together. Together they create more meaning than when they are separated because their linkage in the sentence implies or creates a connection-- and if the connection doesn't add to the meaning, consider if they should be in the same sentence.

Varying the sentence opening, making a different rhythm-- those are not sufficient reasons to put elements in the same sentence. And there are more interesting and thoughtful ways to show a connection than a participle (usually). Find the connection, and find the way to build the sentence that amplifies and deepens that connection. To tell you the truth, that seldom is going to involve an intro participial phrase, which is why we say that the intro participial phrase is often a sign that a writer lacks sophistication. If you've been relying on that, just be aware. It's not a mark of authority. (Sometimes it works, of course. You should be able to tell when it works.)

What is voice? In part, on the sentence level, it's about making sentences mean what you want them to mean-- but also maybe mean even more, adding emotion or suspense or subtext by element order, word choice, juxtaposition. Sentence-meaning construction is so context-dependent there are no rules about what will work. (In fact, Theresa allows that occasionally an intro participle will work, and I have been known to approve the infrequent fragment.) So no one can say something will work until it works. But that means that if you want that voice, that authority, you have to know what you want this sentence to mean and maybe experiment until you achieve that. And part of the wonder of creating a good, meaningful sentence is that you will allow room for additional meaning that you didn't necessarily intend.

The sentence is one of the many wonders of the English language-- endlessly flexible, and open to subtle manipulation. To gain that level of authority, however, you have to be willing to experiment, and to develop an ear and an eye for the construction that -in this context- will create the right meaning.


Evangeline Holland said...

This is great stuff. Coming off a grueling English professor this past semester your grammar posts continue to keep me on my toes.

Patience-please said...

Thank you.

Glynis Peters said...

Well that has given me homework for the weekend, thanks.

Monica said...

This is a fantastic post, Alicia! You make issues that were a bit foggy so clear! I'm so happy to have found your site. You are already helping me to become a better writer. Thank you!

Edittorrent said...

Thanks-- I think my major point with all this is that writing a novel might come from the subconscious, but we have to be conscious when we revise-- and read as a reader and see how we best want to convey meaning.

And I think so many writers use intro participles thinking that they make the prose seem more sophisticated, when in fact, they're doing the opposite. Arrgh.

Wes said...

Dang, Alicia! That was quite a tour de force. Thank you. It was very helpful (even though it made my head hurt).

Adrienne said...

Great post! Now I have to check all my sentence openings. LOL.

Anonymous said...

Extremely helpful, thanks!

One question though, about "Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and he vanished."

The rules about commas I included the idea that if two clauses have the same subject you don't separate them with a comma unless it is a serial comma. So I only would use a comma here if it were "Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and SHE vanished.

Anonymous said...


The rules about commas I LEARNED included the idea that if two clauses have the same subject you don't separate them with a comma unless it is a serial comma. So I only would use a comma here if it were "Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and SHE vanished.

Edittorrent said...

Anon, I never heard that rule. You can have multiple uses of a subject. It's not always right and can seem repetitive and redundant(speaking of redundant (G)), but it's legal, and I'd use it if I wanted to separate the two verbs in time, or if one was the consequence of the other. And if I do that, I have to use a comma, because I almost always use commas plus conjunctions to connect separate clauses in a sentence. (Clause = subject and predicate)

It's a style thing, I think, and the most important aspect for me is to maintain the grammatical integrity of the sentence (using a comma+conjunction, not just one or the other) and the meaning.

Truth is, as I said, I almost never start with a participle, so I wouldn't actually write that sentence. I'd probably write it:
He closed his eyes, clicked his heels, and vanished.

Nice and cogent. That makes me think of Dr. Who. :)

em said...

This is going to help so much! Thanks Alicia:).

Liane Gentry Skye said...

You have no idea how I'm worshipping the ground you walk on right now. I *struggle* with this. This is the one rule of grammar that never clicked for me. (Just ask Theresa!)

By George, I think I've got it!

Edittorrent said...

Liane, you know, I think it helps me to think of the intro participle as a rare thing, and then when I do use it, I'm really judicious about it and careful.

But I guess it's the sentence that matters, and that comes first-- am I conveying all I want to convey?

Edittorrent said...

One question though, about "Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and he vanished."

The rules about commas I included the idea that if two clauses have the same subject you don't separate them with a comma unless it is a serial comma. So I only would use a comma here if it were "Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and SHE vanished.

Look again at this sentence:
"Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together, and he vanished."

There are two subjects. Both of them are "he."

"he clicked his heels together" is an independent clause.

"he vanishes" is also an independent clause.

They don't share a subject. If the sentence read:
"Closing his eyes, he clicked his heels together and vanished."

Then you would be correct. Then there would be a compound predicate with a single subject.

When does a compound take a comma? Rules vary depending on style. In our Red Sage universe, if the first independent clause is 6 or more words, we insert a comma for clarity.


Leona said...

OH boy. Can I have my submission back? Just kidding. I'll fix it I swear. I've been off line for nearly 24 hours and back on and another grammar lesson that feels as if it was written for me.

Thank you for clarifying so many things for us when you're own time must be taken up correcting those that you're getting paid to fix.

Keep up the good work :)

Riley Murphy said...

Great post Alicia!

But for the record? My modifiers aren’t dangling. Nope. They’re hanging like a noose around my neck. I guess I should look on the bright side of this -wait, there is no bright side to this, is there? (I’m imagining myself swinging off the grammar tree by my modifiers - back and forth, back and forth) and what do I see on the horizon? All those ellipses spotting my field of vision...Crapatolla!:D

Hey Liane:
I didn’t notice anything (of the grammar variety) dangling in your new book WICKED TEMPTATION. (How’d ya like that segue?) Now, there may have been other kinds of things dangling but those were the good things that Theresa wouldn’t edit out. What a totally awesome, hot and steamy read! I absolutely loved the story and can’t wait for the next in the series. I’m so jealous. No I’m not. I’m inspired and I’m also keeping an eye on you. You’re going places. And man, if I thought that you had gone in just half of the places that Sage, Trey and Russ managed to get to? I’d really, REALLY be jealous you naughty girl!!!!!!!:D

em said...

Hi Murph, hanging? LOL.
I can't find that book:(. This is no fair. I checked the list.

em said...


Anonymous said...

This is such an informative and friendly blog. The tone of the posts along with the comments are helpful and fun.
Thank you.

Riley Murphy said...

Snooze you lose! Hey, I warned everyone about the great contests that some of the writers were putting on. All you had to do was pay attention and you could have won an advance copy of a STEAMY book, like I did. Did I mention that it was HOT, HOT, HOT?
Liane said I could skip over the 'erotic content' if it was too much for me - so, I took that under advisement and I read those parts twice...Okay, three times. (hehehe):D

Edittorrent said...

Anon, some of the comments really are priceless!

Unknown said...

This clears up a number of things I struggle with. Time to go back and have a look at my WIP.

I couldn't agree more with you Alicia. Some of the comments are priceless! Murph, thanks for the laugh.