Ask the Book Doctor: About Participles and Gerunds

Thursday, June 18, 2020

By Bobbie Christmas

Q: I’ve looked through all my grammar books and cannot find an explanation of why starting a sentence with a participle is a problem. I’m not talking about dangling modifiers.

Have you a source where I could find a paragraph explaining why something like this doesn’t work:

Swinging the door open, he reached inside.

A: The reason you can’t find anything negative about your example—Swinging the door open, he reached inside—is that nothing is wrong with it from a grammatical sense. In a creative sense, however, a problem can arise when too many sentences rely on participles or gerunds (“ing” words), because the usage grows repetitious. Worse, of course, is when sentences have dangling participles, such as in this example: Swinging the door open, the chair in the corner became apparent. As written, the chair swung the door open, because no other person or thing is said to have done the action; therefore, the sentence has a dangling participle.

Q: Here are two sentences that say the same thing but in slightly different ways:

a) He rode the bicycle, pedaling with quick bursts of speed.
b) He rode the bicycle and pedaled with quick bursts of speed.

Is the verb “pedaling” a gerund or a present participle? Second, is one way preferred over the other? Why?

A: I hate to quote grammar, because it’s confusing and boring, but here goes:

A gerund is a noun that is formed from a verb. To be a gerund, the word “pedaling” would have to be used as a noun, such as “Pedaling the bicycle was something he enjoyed.”

Participles join verbs to form complex tenses (as you suspect, a present participle in this case), yet can also be used as adjectives, as this sentence: “His pedaling hobby involves unicycles as well as bicycles.”

Where does that information leave us? Confused, right? You probably asked the question because my book Write In Style advocates avoiding gerunds and participles, although they cannot always be deleted. Also you’ll note I refer to them simply as “ing words,” because their classification doesn’t matter.

Why do I recommend that creative writers remove “ing” words when possible? For two reasons: Their overuse leads to repetition, plus many sentences with “ing” words often rely on weak verbs, such as forms of the verb “to be.” Weak verbs don’t show action, whereas verbs in active voice do. This sentence uses passive voice: He was dancing in the dark. This sentence uses active voice: He danced in the dark.

All that information aside, to answer your question, both your sample sentences are grammatical; the choice of which to use depends on the words and sentences surrounding that sentence. If one or more “ing” words appear nearby, choose sentence b); if not, sentence a) is fine.

Your examples both use strong language, but here is an example of weaker writing:

He was riding the bicycle, pedaling with quick bursts of speed. (This formation has two words ending in “ing” and relies on the weak, passive verb “was.”)

Q: I am curious to know why you attack the use of “snuck.” Why not give guidance on the proper use of the word instead of telling people to do blanket searches to remove it? This site defines “snuck” as the past tense and past participle of “sneak.”

You shouldn’t be urging people to drop the colorful irregular verbs in our language.

Please revise your information to reflect that “snuck” is good grammar and your advice is only your personal preference.

P.S. How do you feel about “shone” and “shined?”

A: I appreciate your challenge to my statement that “snuck” is substandard. I was not stating a personal preference, however. I was stating a fact, and I can back it up with a reliable resource.

Dictionaries reflect spoken language, and English certainly is a changing language. Spoken language is one thing, however, and written—literary—language is another. The fact that a word appears in the dictionary does not make it acceptable in all literary circles, and my job is to teach people how to write well. When writing dialogue, then, it’s fine to show characters using the word “snuck” when they mean “sneaked,” just as some people say “ain’t” when they mean “am not.” When writing narrative, however, use “sneaked” for past tense.

The word “snuck” has sneaked into our spoken language, but literary gurus are not prepared to embrace it in written work. As a book editor, I therefore must tell people not to use “snuck” in narrative, only in dialogue, as I said in my original post.

For the record, my resource is The Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition, the standard in the book-publishing industry. Entry 5.250 says this: “Sneak is conjugated sneak—sneaked—sneaked. Reserve snuck for dialect and tongue-in-cheek usages.”

As for your question about my opinion about “shone” and “shined,” both are acceptable in literary circles. Sometimes writers have choices.

Thank you for your challenge and for being alert to English and its quirks. People like you—those who pay attention to the details of English—are my heroes. You keep English a vital, evolving language.


Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions too. Send them to Bobbie[at]zebraeditor[dot]com or BZebra[at]aol[dot]com. Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at


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