Monday, June 11, 2012

Question from the comments

Here's a question from the comments, and it's a good one.

Hi Theresa & Alicia,
I've got a question for you (your site says to post in the comments). Don't know if you ever want to hear again about present participial phrases, but I read your series with interest and even bookmarked it.

I took the advice to heart, but I've notice a side effect -- I find myself a bit paranoid about ever using a PPP. On top of that, in a novel I'm reading by a respected author, I'm finding a greater use of the PPP than I would have expected.

So I thought I'd ask you this: when is it acceptable to use a PPP?

Thanks so much for all your painstaking work!

 Monica, this is a great question. Every part of speech has some good use and purpose. The problems come from overuse and misuse, but it would be as wrong to say, "Never ever use PPPs," as to say, "Never ever use nouns."

So, if every part of speech has a purpose, what is the purpose of a present participle used to modify a noun, such as:

the burning house
Burning too rapidly for containment, the house posed a threat to the entire neighborhood.

Notice that in both cases, the present participle "burning" is used to modify the noun "house." It describes a state of being of the house or something about the nature of the house. In one case, it's a single-word modifier, and in the other, it's in a present participial phrase. So, because it's a modifier, the first thing we look at with a PPP is whether it is next to the noun it modifies. Compare:

Burning too rapidly for containment, the fire department focused on saving the neighboring homes.

That is a dangling modifier because "burning" cannot be said to modify any noun in that sentence. So this, clearly, is a bad usage, unless the fire department is itself on fire.

But that's only the first step in the analysis. A present participle might be next to the correct noun (or it might be used, more rarely, as a cumulative modifier), and it still might not be the best choice for your prose. Why? In normal usage, this applies something like a progressive verb tense. A progressive verb tense describes an ongoing action:

The house was burning when the tenants arrived.

The arrival of the tenants happens in one particular moment in time. The burning occurs over a span of time, and the arrival happens within that span. In a similar manner, a PPP describes an ongoing condition of a noun at the moment when a verb action occurs:

Burning too rapidly for containment, the house posed a threat to the entire neighborhood.

The act of posing a threat occurs at a moment when the house is burning too rapidly for containment. "Burning too rapidly for containment" describes the condition of the noun "house" when the verb action "posed" occurs.

But here's why this is sometimes more problematic than it should be for fiction writers. Literary convention has us using the simple past tense. Present participles in general -- whether used in progressive conjugations, as gerunds, or as modifiers -- feel ever so slightly out of synch with the literary past tense. Sometimes, this can be used to great advantage, as when you're trying to write a highly stylized or even surreal passage. And sometimes it just sounds like the wrong note.

But typically, the danger from PPPs comes from one of two huge and common issues:
1. Misplaced/dangling modifiers
2. Using them to try to describe sequential actions (or really, any actions -- they can only describe a state of being)

"Burning out of control, the house was rebuilt by Jones Brothers Construction."

That's wrong because they aren't going to rebuild the house while it is still burning. Do you see how that works?

I recognize that I'm hammering on incorrect usages in a discussion of correct usage. But this is because, I'm convinced, most authors can't spot these errors in their own prose. They try to shoehorn a sense of immediacy into their prose by tacking on PPPs, and PPPs just don't work that way. You want your prose to feel fast? Shoehorn tension into every line. That's a much better solution.

So. Bottom line. When can you use a PPP? I have advised authors to keep it to around one usage per five to ten pages, but that's an arbitrary rule based on observation and experience, and ymmv. This measure might feel like overusage to some sensitive readers, and it might pass entirely unnoticed by others. But you definitely want to avoid overusage because this will prejudice educated readers against your prose -- and this means editors, agents, booksellers, reviewers, and the like. But *if* you aren't overusing them, you can use a PPP as long as it is used correctly to describe the state or nature of a noun at the moment of the action of the verb. And as long as it doesn't disrupt the temporal rhythm of the prose, which is, I admit, hard to gauge.



Monica T. Rodriguez said...

Thank you! I'm sure you have a full inbox so I fully appreciate you taking the time to answer my question.

It looks like my paranoia was in fact well-warranted. If I understand you properly, there just aren't many instances where a PPP is called for. Basically when there's an ongoing action.

You gave an example of a PPP that starts a sentence. Is there an acceptable usage at the end? I know this sounds awfully nitpicky, but what I've found is that I've lumped all PPPs in the bad column. I'm trying to (re)learn how to distinguish good (or okay) from bad.

Thanks again!

Arial Burnz said...

I've got one for ya! Setup for the sentence: The heroine is in the saddle, sitting in front of the hero. He has just reached into his saddlebags for a bottle and...

His arms coming around her, he uncorked a small bottle, took a swig and replaced the cork.

I'm told that he can't have his arms come around her AND uncork the bottle AND take a swig AND replace the cork all at the same time. I'm told that the way the sentence is written above, that's what I'm describing.

Obviously, my original intent was to have these actions happening sequentially, but I loathe writing, "After his arms came around her, he uncorked a small bottle, then took a swig before replacing the cork." BLAH! It's wordy and sloppy.



Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for your amazing posts on PPPs. You've filled in a massive gap in my knowledge. A quick question if I may.

Your article says: "PPPs describe an ongoing condition of a noun at the moment when a verb action occurs".

So let me posit two examples:

Example 1. "John took out his keys, opening the door, walking in and turning on the TV."

This obviously breaks the rule about PPPs and sequential actions: John's ongoing condition at the moment of the verb (the moment he takes out his keys) can't possibly happen simultaneously to opening the door, walking in & turning on the TV.

Example 2. "John ambled around the garden, smelling the roses and admiring the lawn."

This one confuses me though because doesn't John's “verb action” (ambling) occur over a span of time? And therefore doesn't John's "ongoing condition at moment the verb action occurs" last for the entire period when he's ambling around the garden?

The verb action is not a static moment in time - it's a span of time equal to however long he's ambling around the garden, and as such, wouldn't he have the opportunity during this “verb action period” also to smell the roses and admire the lawn?

I hope that makes sense - I'm still struggling to get on top of the concepts.