Participle Phrases

housewife-23868_1280Mrs Grumpy here again.

Another little bad habit creeps into a lot of writing, I’ve discovered.  And I always feel a trickle of irritation when I read it.  Those pesky -ing phrases.  You know the ones I mean?

‘Running down the stairs, Lucy opened the front door.’

‘Heading towards the kitchen, Maria made herself a cup of coffee.’

‘Putting his shoes on, James got into his car and drove off.’

‘Pulling up at the gate, David jumped out of the car.’

And there it is  Yep.  I really am wondering about Lucy’s dexterity.  She must have terrifically long arms to be able to reach the front door while she’s hurtling down the stairs.  And Maria…now I really am jealous.  She can ensure her coffee’s made before she’s even got to the kitchen. That’s some skill.   As for James, I sincerely hope he doesn’t have any passengers;  I’m seeing blue flashing lights behind his car as we speak.  That is, after the bobbies have apprehended David for jumping out of the car while it’s in motion.

It’s so easy for a reader to spot these pitfalls, and equally easy for authors to dash them off as they write as they hurry to get the words in their heads down on paper.  The examples above include actions which can’t, in all practicality, be done at the same time.  So…

Lucy ran down the stairs and opened the front door.
Maria headed for the kitchen where she made her coffee.
James put his shoes on before getting into his car and driving off,
David pulled up at the gate, and then jumped out of the car.

There are of course instances where you can multi-task.

Thinking about her day ahead, Grace made herself a hearty breakfast.   You can think and eat at the same time.

Keeping her hand firmly on the handle, Julia opened the door slowly. 

I’m not overly fond of the participle phrase, if I’m honest.  I would prefer if Grace thought about her day ahead while/as she made her breakfast.  However, if it is going to be used, I’d advocate ensuring the action in the phrase can be executed at the same time as the action following it…and…that the subject in that phrase is the same one as in the subsequent part.

Running round the track, the spectators watched the athletes in training.  This is incorrect, as the subject in each clause is different.  The athletes are the ones running round the track, ‘we’ are the ones watching.  The example implies the spectators are running round the track while watching the athletes.

This would be better written thus:  the spectators watched the athletes running round the track. 

Am I just unlucky to stumble across authors who fall into this trap, or…are any of you going to admit to slipping up from time to time?  You can tell me, you know.  I promise I won’t tell anyone.

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

18 thoughts on “Participle Phrases”

  1. I try hard to avoid starting questions with gerunds (I think that’s what they’re called), but sometimes they slip in.

    Will try harder in future though. :/

  2. Kathy, you are dead on. I’ll share this with you: I have been trad published, am contracted with a digital publisher and am also indie published. As I revise and edit to bring out my backlist, I often discover participles/gerunds in the text. I revise. IMO, your post can be directed to editors as well as indie authors. You wrote: “Keeping her hand firmly on the handle, Julia opened the door slowly.”
    That is two adverbs in the same sentence. I try to avoid those like the plague.
    If Julia is fearful of what is behind the door. I would show that. Just saying…

    1. Ah, but she might not have been fearful. She might have been creeping into her daughter’s bedroom to wish her good night. Or, she might have been holding a bunch of balloons creeping into the lounge to surprise her husband. Of course, the sentence could also have been dialogue. Yes, two adverbs in one sentence may be frowned upon, but the sentence was merely to illustrate the feasibility of two actions.

  3. I tend to use participle phrases. Going over my first drafts I usually find all sorts of embarrassing blunders so I get frustrated and lose track of certain things. But it’s articles such as this one that help me keep focused and guide me. Thank you 🙂

  4. Thank you, Cathy. These things irk me, too, and I try to catch as much as I can. It’s easy enough to take a few seconds to make the sentence clearer

  5. I slip up from time to time, but I fix those errors in my rewrites. If any have escaped me–well, then pardon my embarrassment!

    Another bad habit is comma omission with participial phrases, particularly those that occur at the end of a sentence. Example from Grammar Girl: She yelled at me, making me cry. (Needs a comma after “me.”) Gerund phrases function as nouns in a sentence, not participles. So much to learn, so much to know–for a writer, the challenges never end!

  6. Hey! Too much Hemminway influence. We like adverbs in the UK and Commonwealth. Nothing wrong with a well chosen and beautifully placed adverb because sometimes the verb alone just does not say exactly what you want.

    1. I agree…entirely! Wholeheartedly! LOL. I like a good adverb now and then. It is still part of speech, isn’t it? When adverbs are banned from the English language, I’ll stop using qualifiers!

  7. I think the “running down the stairs, she opened the door,” complaint is correct but rather picky, although I will try to avoid such errors in future.
    However, the “Running around the track, the spectators watched the athletes,” isn’t about about grammar, it’s about meaning, and mistakes of that type are the first thing that cues me to a book that hasn’t been edited. I’m with you all the way on that one!

    1. I don’t think it’s picky. She simply can’t run down the stairs and open the door. The latter action takes place after the former. None of these phrases are about grammar, they’re all about meaning, so the track one falls under the same umbrella in my view. I think the bottom line is, if there’s any doubt or head-scratching with a sentence, hit delete and start again. I believe some writers think they have to write elaborately or floridly to stand out, but I think less is more. Sometimes, simplicity is more attractive.

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