Death by Participial Phrases

Hoping for the best, Jeremy cinched the rope around his waist. Spreading the bedsheet behind, he was suddenly doubtful this crazy plan would work. A thousand-foot drop awaited, taunting him. The river glistened, calling him. Stepping to the edge, he tightened his boot laces. He summoned his courage, leaping. Cold wind roared in his ears, freezing his cheeks. The makeshift parachute fluttered, collapsing. Cartwheeling down, splintering tree limbs, and slamming rocks, it was death by participial phrases.

Douglas Phillips
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Death by Participial Phrases

(Part 2 of -ing verbs. See Part 1 here.)

Hoping for the best, Jeremy cinched the rope around his waist. Spreading the bedsheet behind, he was suddenly doubtful this crazy plan would work. A thousand-foot drop awaited, taunting him. The river glistened, calling him. Stepping to the edge, he tightened his boot laces. He summoned his courage, leaping. Cold wind roared in his ears, freezing his cheeks. The makeshift parachute fluttered, collapsing. Cartwheeling down, splintering tree limbs, and slamming rocks, it was death by participial phrases.

Plenty of action, a rich vocabulary, but it’s still not particularly good writing. What’s wrong with it? And what is a participial phrase?

Participial phrases come in two forms: the present participle (Crouching beneath the tree, Terry waited.) and the past participle (Crouched beneath the tree, Terry waited.). A participial phrase is set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma and contains a secondary verb that modifies the main verb or subject of the sentence. The phrase can appear at the beginning (Hoping for the best, Jeremy cinched…) or the end (The river glistened, calling  him.) or even in the middle (The dancer, pausing her pirouette, caught Elaine’s attention.) In every case, these sentences describe multiple events that are happening simultaneously (or nearly so) or describe a single event in multiple ways. Done well, multiple events become a seamless combination. Great for action stories!

In the hands of a skilled author, participial phrases can be elegant:

  • Their breath froze in the air as it left their mouths, spouting forth in spumes of vapor that settled upon the hair of their bodies and formed into crystals of frost. (Jack London, White Fang)
  • That's how I feel now, trying to remember how to breathe, totally stunned as the name bounces around the inside of my skull. (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games). Notice how Collins strings both the present participle (trying) and the past participle (stunned) into two phrases, both of which modify the main sentence subject-verb (I feel).

Participial phrases are also a great tool to avoid overuse of the past progressive tense (see my previous blog):

  • Past progressive: I was bouncing in my seat. I was hoping the turbulence would end.
  • Participial phrase: Bouncing in my seat, I hoped the turbulence would end.

Participial phrases can improve writing, but as my opening example shows, they can also make it worse. What might go wrong with these phrases, and how can you fix it? Three things:

  1. Overuse produces an irritating rhythm. Sentence after sentence, each beginning or ending with a participial phrase can produce a cadence that is sing-song or down-right irritating! If you see multiple sentences in the same paragraph starting or ending with a participial phrase, find alternatives. Reword. Break sentences apart or insert then to indicate sequence.

    Instead of: Hearing the door open, I hid. Peering over the blanket, I recognized his face. Spotting me, he grinned.
    Try variation: The door creaked open. I hid, then peered over the blanket. His face was familiar. Spotting me, he grinned.
     
  2. Impossible actions. The participial phrase implies that two actions are simultaneous (or nearly so) which can create impossible actions.

    Stepping to the edge, he tightened his boot laces.
    How does someone tighten their boot laces while stepping to the edge? Wouldn’t they trip?

    He lifted her off the ground, waving to her father.
    Does he have three arms?
     
  3. Weakened verbs. When a participle verb appears in a phrase, it is subsidiary to the main verb. This may be exactly what you want but beware of burying the real action.

    Squeezing the trigger, he fired.
    In this case, fired is the primary action, squeezing is secondary. Perfect.

    He summoned his courage, leaping.
    Leaping seems almost an afterthought, but it’s the more significant action of the sentence. What if this is turned around? Summoning his courage, he leaped. Or eliminate the participial phrase altogether. He summoned his courage, then leaped.

A fun exercise is to search your writing for ing. While you’ll find nouns like ring or spring, and gerunds like writing, you’ll also find cases of the past progressive tense (I was eating) and present participial phrases - the most common type (Swallowing in one bite, I gagged.) For those who want to go full nerd, try these regular expressions in Microsoft Word’s Advanced Search (be sure to turn on Wild Cards first).

To find present participial phrases that begin a sentence:
[A-Z][a-z]{1}ing[’ A-z]{1,50},
                  ^ iterate 1 thru 10 to find all the -ing verbs*

To find present participial phrases that end a sentence:
, [a-z]{2}ing[’ A-z]{1,50}.
           ^ iterate 2 thru 11 to find all the -ing verbs*

* Both searches should work in a single step, using [A-Z][a-z]{1,10}ing[’ A-z]{1,50}, and , [a-z]{2,11}ing[’ A-z]{1,50}.  Unfortunately, there’s a bug in Microsoft Word that causes these legitimate search expressions to fail. I’ve notified Microsoft. So far, no answer. Until then, use the iterations above.

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