Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The "ING" Thing - Part 1

Stop slinging INGs and bring the zing!

What's an ING?  Well, that's my term for verbs (or verbal nouns) that end with "ing."  I use ING because those words can go by any of several names: Infinite-Verb, Gerund, Gerund-Participle, Present Participle, Active Participle, Imperfect Participle, Progressive Participle, Dangling Participle.

Ah, so may participles, so little time.  Unless you're in pursuit of a Master's Degree in English, it gets a bit confusing.  Thus, for the purpose of casual discussion here, I roll them all up under the simple, unifying term "ING."

Whatever their proper term, these various INGs have one thing in common, which I'll illustrate through these definitions, brought to you by The Oxford American Dictionary (Avon Books).

gerund [jer-und] n  an English verbal noun ending in -ing; a Latin verbal noun expressing generalized or uncompleted action.

present participle [pahr-ti-sip-el] n  a word formed from a verb, one that expresses continuing action, as burning, frightening, wasting.

The common thread?  The action is ongoing, not finished, happening right now—this very instant.  They often work well in a Present Tense narrative.

However, if you write a Past Tense narrative….  Need I say it?  Okay.  In a Past Tense narrative, you should almost always—the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the time—use a verb that suits your Tense.

past participle [pahr-ti-sip-el] n  a word formed from a verb, one that expresses completed action, as burned, frightened, wasted.

Of course, as is so often the case with the rules of writing, this is not a 100%-er.  You may have occasion to express an ongoing action, if the scene flow calls for it, even in a Past Tense narrative.  However, this happens far less often than the work of most writers would seem to indicate.

In other words, writers use INGs when they should not, and fling them about like monkeys in a poop patch.

I think part of the reason this problem is so prevalent—indeed, that many writers don’t even consider it a problem—is that English teachers in elementary and high school often instruct students to use them.  Why would they do so?  To help the students cut their word counts.  After all, every time you change, "John hit the brakes and turned right into the alley," to, "John hit the brakes, turning right into the alley," you eliminate one word.

Never mind all the reasons this is bad (I'll go into more detail in an upcoming blog entry in this series, The "ING" Thing).  The important thing is that you cut a word.  Right?  This is terrible advice, an area where many teachers are out of phase with industry professionals.

I'll provide additional entries in this series—at least Parts 2 and 3—in which I'll include hard examples of what not to do, and their preferred alternatives.  For now, I want to leave you with relevant words from a renowned creative-writing instructor.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers – John Gardner (Vintage Books)
I've excerpted the following, in applicable segments, from pages 100-101.
            Sentences beginning with infinite-verb phrases are so common in bad writing that one is wise to treat them as guilty until proven innocent—sentences, that is, that begin with such phrases as "Looking up slowly from her sewing, Martha said…" or "Carrying the duck in his left hand, Henry…"
            In really bad writing, such introductory phrases regularly lead to shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic.  The bad writer tells us, for instance: "Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, Eloise drove into town."  (The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and the action of driving into town are simultaneous.)
            Or the bad writer tells us, "Quickly turning from the bulkhead, Captain Figg spoke slowly and carefully."  (Illogical; that is, impossible.)
            But even if no illogic or confusion or temporal focus is involved, the too frequent or inappropriate use of infinite-verb phrases makes bad writing.  Generally, it comes about because the writer cannot think of a way to vary the length of his sentences.  The writer looks at the terrible thing he's written: "She slipped off the garter.  She turned to John.  She smiled at his embarrassment," and in a desperate attempt to get rid of the dully thudding subjects and verbs he revises to "She slipped off the garter.  Turning to John, she smiled at his embarrassment."
            The goal, sentence variety, may be admirable, but there are better ways.  One can get rid of the thudding subjects and verbs by using compound predicates: "She slipped off the garter and turned to John"; by introducing qualifiers and appositional phrases: "She slipped—or, rather, yanked—off the garter, a frayed, mournful pink one long past its prime, gray elastic peeking out past the ruffles, indifferently obscene" (etc.); or by finding some appropriate subordinate clause, perhaps: "When she had slipped off the garter, she turned to John"—a solution that gets rid of the thudding by lowering (hastening) the stress of the first "she."
            …Used indiscriminately, the introductory infinite-verb phrase chops the action into fits and starts and loses what effectiveness it might have had, properly set.

'Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy.  It takes work.  You mustn't be lazy.


  1. "...and fling them about like monkeys in a poop patch." Funny stuff.

  2. Hilarious line about the monkeys.