Friday, August 21, 2009

Sentence openings-- beyond words

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.)

So, anyway.
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
Strangers sliced
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
Someone else
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.

Here's another:
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.



Joan Mora said...

Thank you for expanding on yesterday's post. Now I'm off to question every sentence in my WIP. Again.

Jami Gold said...


I hear you. And people wonder why I'm on my 30th (or so) round of revisions. :) No, it's not that I'm finding excuses to delay the rejection rounds - it's that I'm on that steep learning curve. Grrr. I just keep telling myself that the next book will be so much easier compared to this one. :)

Jami G.

Jami Gold said...


In your SI example, the last sentence had a comma-separated clause with an *ing word:
He kept it up as they twisted in the second, screaming all the way into blackness.
Is that "screaming..." clause not a PPP? And if so, what is it? (Sorry, I never learned these grammar terms in school. :) )

Jami G.

Jami Gold said...


Okay, I found this sentence that has an opening *ing phrase. My first stupid question is: Is this a PPP? It seems like it is, but it "feels" different than the others I've been trying to fix. My second question is (assuming it is a PPP): How could I fix this without ruining the rhythm or impact of the sentence?
Hating how he’d made her feel, she hoped her knees wouldn’t buckle and betray her weakness.

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Jami, I thought I identified that as a participle. Maybe I didn't say phrase? But yes, it's a phrase-- I guess anything longer than a word is a phrase. :)

The point is not to obsess, Joan, it's to write sentences that mean what you want to say. I will bet you most writers we love don't think about how they need to vary the length or opening of sentences... they just FEEL this sentence is different from that sentence, because it means something different or it's in a different position in the paragraph....

But how to cultivate that FEEL? Hmm. I think it helps to read closely stories that you love, lingering on wonderful sentences, reading them over and over, and that will help incorporate that sentence structure into your arsenal. :)

Edittorrent said...

And by the way, you guys, if while you're reading over and revising your work, how about picking out a sentence you worked on and saying why you decided to order it this way? It doesn't have to be a conscious decision-- but looking back at it, why were you right that it would work this way?

Jami Gold said...


Thanks for clarifying that SI article. Up above, you'd written: Not an intro participial phrase in there. (Or a trailing one, for that matter.) So that's why I was confused. :)

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, I did tell you that when I start thinking - it’s never good, right?:D

So um, here’s a goodie:

Moving quickly to steady her feet on the floor, while at the same time making sure that those faltering steps increased the distance between them, she nervously kept an eye on his doubled over profile.

Hmmm, my reasoning behind writing this sentence this way? Well, for starters, this is the third paragraph in a block of an action scene. When you read it back collectively it flows - but I do have to admit that if I took it out of that context I would want to rewrite it like:

She moved quickly to steady her feet on the floor. She was careful to use these faltering steps to her advantage and increase the distance between them while she nervously kept an eye on his doubled over profile.

I have no better excuse other than to say - the action is fluid even though the positioning of the characters has changed - so I did want to get the shift in the physical changes in the scene without disrupting the forward motion of the action. Crap. I do these things without thinking about them - is this wrong? I mean do you always edit these out? It’s not like I can’t do so myself, but in the few - (there were only two beginning ppps in five chapter of my current WIP) so it isn’t like I dump them in with flagrant abandon or anything – it’s just that sometimes it seems to work with the rhythm.

Signed Murphy, who can’t seem to stay off the hot seat!;)

Riley Murphy said...

Or, I could have Jami rewrite it for me like this:

She moved quickly to steady her feet on the floor and nervously kept an eye on his doubled over profile, making sure that those faltering steps put distance between them.

Thanks Jami!

Jami Gold said...


I agree with you. Your rewrite would have much less "flow" than the original.

I posted my example up above, which is the first one I haven't been able to get rid of. No, I take that back. I know how it could be rewritten, but it sounded like it would change the message of the sentence to me. Maybe that's when they're okay? :)

Jami G.
...Oh, and here's an insulated cushion for that hot seat. :)

Edittorrent said...

Well, a friend of mine used to talk about "Dolly Parton sentences"-- top-heavy. :) That's when the introductory elements are a lot "heavier" or longer than the main clause. I think there's a purpose for that, a "feel" for that-- comic effect, for one (the anticlimax of the main clause can be humorous), and also maybe to convey a peltering, frantic action.

But you are burying the main clause, and how important the main clause is in that context, I don't know. But by the time we get to the main clause (which is usually the most important action), we've gotten tangled up. Here's how I'd edit, and keep in mind I don't have the context, and also that I go with a trailing adjective phrase (careful), but for some reason, I felt like all the action in one sentence, and the conclusion in another for emphasis maybe:

She moved quickly to steady her feet on the floor, careful to use these faltering steps to her advantage and increase the distance between them. All the while, she nervously kept an eye on his doubled(hyphen here, btw-- compound adjective before a noun)over profile.

I was going with a simple "She" opening in the last sentence, but I think you're right that "while" is important as there IS simultaneity. It's just the sentence gets too complicated (for me) when you have three major elements/actions in one. So the physical action in one, and the perceptive (noticing) action in the last. A sentence by itself will mean, of course, that THAT is the essential thing in the paragraph. Don't know if it is.

With long sentences, I try to read aloud, and if I can't get all the words out in one breath, I try to trim or break. The reader kind of instinctively might feel a sentence is too long if she senses she couldn't say it in one breath. (Faulkner would disagree, of course. :)


Joan Mora said...

Thanks Alicia,

You got me--I do obsess over each word.

Here's a before and after. The first one trips over itself. I didn't change the ending because the grandmother's spirit is the element I'd like to highlight. (If you didn't mean for me to copy a sentence here--apologies!)

Crossing the threshold, a powerful force struck Julianne, as though she were entering a different time, one in which her grandmother’s indelible spirit lived on.

Julianne maneuvered the threshold as though she entered a different time period, one in which her grandmother’s indelible spirit lived on.

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I'd like to kick the creative writing teacher who told me that PPPs were a good way to vary the beginning of a sentence. But that was 30 years ago, so he's safely out of range. ;-)

Jami Gold said...


Yes! I'd actually learned that "trick" in a class as well. :) Granted, it was a high-school level class, but still... Between this and teachers telling you to use more adverbs and adjectives (and the lack of real grammar instruction in most schools), I really wonder about how writing is taught pre-college level.

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Alicia, you've got a gift. I looked at the structure of that sentence (I like the Dolly Parton analogy, btw - really brings the point home doesn't it?) and thought to break it into two separate sentences. It never occurred to me to group the progression of the actions together. That's something I will hang on to while I go through my revisions - THANKS!
I would still like to know though, if you saw this in a submission...let’s say - it’s buried in a partial in or near the end of it - would this be grounds for a rejection of the MS? I’m still having a hard time getting my head around where the line is drawn. Because I think Deb and I had the same teacher 30 years ago!:) Don’t even get me started on my adjective problem. I was encouraged to include as many of those as I could work into a story and it seemed to be the charm during school. Yep, the more I included the higher my grades were - a real bummer now because I can’t restrain myself from throwing down a whole pile of them. I have to wait until I see a line in reviewer comments that says: No more than five - that’s all I’m allowing! Cut - cut - cut! And I cringe, cringe, cringe! ;)


I see where you’re having trouble with that one. The simple answer would be to rearrange the actions but then you lose the emotion you’re going for - maybe if you qualified what that feeling was?

Instead of:
Hating how he’d made her feel, she hoped her knees wouldn’t buckle and betray her weakness.

How about:
She hated how he made her feel, so helpless and vulnerable at the moment , that she hoped her knees wouldn’t buckle and betray her weakness to him.

Edittorrent said...

Murph, no, it's a LOT of intro PPPs that feel amateur to me, not a few. I'm not kidding-- I get submissions where half or more of the sentences start that way. And I know they think it's great. But you can tell from all our investigation-- most published work doesn't use that technique, and there's a reason.

But one PPP? Not a problem. However, if every sentence has meaning and power, I certainly will look more favorably on a submission.

Kathleen MacIver said...

This is absolutely fantastic. Just the sort of helpful post I was hoping you'd offer after the last one!

Unknown said...

There's a lot of information in this post. Thanks Alicia. I have been weeding this past week yet, reading this I think I could trim some more.;)

Petronella said...

Thanks for the post so full of useful information.

In the last couple of days I've started doing some revision work on a novel I set aside after doing the third draft. I haven't looked at it for at least three years.

Anyway, I have found only one sentence starting with an 'ing' word... the only one in four chapters.

Sitting up and looking around, I realized this was the dream bedroom I had described and sketched for Maisie the evening before.

One moment this seems perfectly right to me, but in the next moment I have my doubts. I'd never heard of ppps until I read the posts on them here. Do I have a double ppp in the sentence?

Jami Gold said...


Yep, that's an intro PPP. I had/have (and am still cleaning) tons of these in my WIP, so I've gotten lots of practice in cleaning them up. :)

How about?:
When I sat up and looked around, I realized this was the dream bedroom I had described and sketched for Maisie the evening before.

Hope this helps!
Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Petronella, yes, that's a PPP.

It's a whole lot for one sentence, I'd say. It's a really PACKED sentence. I'd make it a whole paragraph. What made her sit up and look around? What did she see that made her think-- "Dream bedroom!" Then she remembers describing and sketching it for Maisie. Then her reaction -- what she makes of this.

See, I tell you-- I'm terrible at summary! I make paragraphs where others make words. But this just does seem like a really important moment-- she wakes up in this bedroom she had sketched the night before-- presumably not the bedroom that she had gone to sleep in. This just doesn't seem to be the moment I'd rush through in a single sentence.

Riley Murphy said...

Hey P:

I was looking at this and Jami pretty much nailed it. So, I don't have much to add - only,
and I'm not sure what you're going for here, but maybe something like this would work:

I sat up, looked around and to my surprise/horror/astonishment - I realized this was the dream bedroom I had described and indeed sketched, for Maisie the evening before.
Just my .02 Murphy!

Petronella said...

Jami, I like your suggestion, for I'd get rid of the PPP and that's a good thing.

Murphy, thanks for seconding the idea.

Alicia, the idea of expanding on this one sentence is sending all kinds of ideas through my mind. For one thing, the character could decribe some of what she sees. I love writing description... but then I read warnings one shouldn't use too much of it, and 'clam up' so to speak.

Sylvia said...

This is so useful! I'm looking at my revisions in an entirely different way.

I think I want to marry you. All of you.