About Gerunds and Participles

Saturday, September 17, 2022

By Bobbie Christmas

Q: One of my critique partners said I use too many gerunds and participles and said I have several dangling participles. I thought I knew the parts of speech, but I’m not sure what the person is talking about.

A: In simple terms, a participle is a form of a verb (often ending in “ing”) that is used as a modifier, as in the following: the dancing bear

A gerund is a present participle used as a noun, as in the following: Sleeping nightly is essential.

The use of too many words that end in “ing” can slow the pace, weaken writing, and become repetitive. They often turn potentially strong verbs into weaker forms: nouns or adjectives.

As adjectives, participles don’t always harm the quality of writing (We laughed at the dancing bears), but when linked to the verb “to be,” “ing” words replace active, more powerful verbs and lead to loose writing. Loose: The bats were hanging by their feet. (Tight: The bats hung by their feet.) Loose: The boat was bumping across the waves. (Tight: The boat bumped across the waves.)

Often the pesky “ing” form hides after began and started. Loose: The monks began chanting in the background. John started sneezing. Tight: The monks chanted in the background. John sneezed.

Save began and started for special times when the action actually begins.
She began her lecture with, “Dear friends and enemies.”
John started to sneeze, but pressed his nose to suppress the urge.

Also avoid gerunds when infinitives are better. Weak: They planned on staying until midnight. Better: They planned to stay until midnight.

Rather than delete every gerund and participle, make sure each one has a reason for existing. For example, the gerund existing in the previous sentence does not detract from the strength of the sentence. Another example of an acceptable gerund: We admired the choir’s singing.

Many writers get into a pattern of overusing participles at the beginnings of sentences. Strong writers, however, avoid overusing any structure, especially one that relies on too many “ing” words.

In the worst case, sentences that begin with “ing” words can lead to dangling participles if not handled correctly. Example of a dangling participle: Waving goodbye, the boat pulled away while we watched. As written, the boat waved goodbye, because the word waving refers to the next noun that did the action, the boat. To correct the sentence, recast it, perhaps this way: We waved goodbye while the boat pulled away

What does dangling really mean? Modifying—or descriptive—phrases must have logical relationships to the nearest subject in a sentence. When those words are omitted—when the person or thing who actually performed the activity does not appear in the sentence—the phrase dangles.

Dangling or missing modifiers, however, do not have to involve “ing” words. If something is missing that makes the sentence say something other than what was intended, it is still a dangling modifier. Here’s an example: After college graduation I paid for my son to travel Europe for a summer. In this example the sentence is in essence saying, “After I graduated from college, I paid for my son to travel.” The correction would be something like this: After my son graduated from college, I paid for him to travel Europe for a summer.

Q: I have recently written a novel in Farsi and I have translated the first seventeen pages of it to English. Even though the story line has been of interest to some publishers and agents in US and UK, I could not get them to commit. I am willing to rewrite it, and I would like to know what I should address to interest publishers in America.

A: It’s been my experience that people translating from Farsi use quite a few gerunds and participles (words ending in “ing”), but contemporary American publishers prefer authors to avoid them, because they not only get wordy, but they also often rely on passive verbs (such as forms of “to be”) instead of active verbs. For example, instead of “She was planning a trip to Florida,” publishers might prefer “She planned a trip to Florida.” Instead of “They were dancing in the street,” a strong writer might choose “They danced in the street.”

Also, those who learn Farsi first sometimes then learn British English, which is more elevated than US English. American publishers often expect the writing to be at about a sixth- or seventh-grade level, rather than higher, as British English tends to be. I would avoid using British terms too, such as amidst, amongst, whilst, and towards, when in America we use amid, among, while, and toward. These things are minor in comparison to the story, though, and American publishers want a compelling story peopled with interesting characters. Americans want plenty of plot-related action and dialogue and a satisfying ending, even though it doesn’t have to be a happy one. Contemporary publishers rarely purchase literary writing—which tends to have long, flowery descriptions and such—and prefer tight, active, writing.


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


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