Monday, October 12, 2009

The "ING" Thing - Part 2

Stop slinging INGs and bring the zing!

(NOTE: If you haven't read my entry, The "ING" Thing – Part 1, I recommend you do so before continuing with this entry.)

In this continuing discussion of The "ING" Thing, I provide further explanation and some examples of why the use of INGs, particularly in a Past Tense narrative, is so bad (usually).

First, let's review the example I used in my previous blog entry.
BAD: John hit the brakes, turning right into the alley.
GOOD: John hit the brakes and turned right into the alley.

The first sentence is bad for two reasons:
1)       The sentence implies that the two actions—"hit the brakes" and "turning right"—occurred simultaneously.  In fact, the former would have preceded the latter.
2)       You force the reader to pause unnecessarily by inserting a comma where none would be required, were you to structure the sentence properly.

Excessive Commas
Comma use, whether inadequate or excessive, is the number one issue for many writers.  Sentence structure in general is one of the toughest aspects of writing to master.  Therefore, I shall address that issue in future blog entries.  However, excessive commas are particularly troubling because:
1)       We "process" the written word primarily at the sentence level, which means we're happiest when we complete one sentence and move to the next.  I'm not suggesting words are not important (of course they are), merely secondary to the overall sentence in which they appear.  Don’t believe me?  How easily can you read the following passage?
a.       I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg—the phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mind.  Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod apeapr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the first and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae.  The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm.  This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?
2)       This does not mean you should provide a series of choppy, unsatisfying sentences laden with spelling errors.
3)       It does mean you shouldn’t slow the pace and force the reader to pause unless it's necessary (or particularly effective).  Readers revolt at a subconscious level (it's a psychological thing) against excessive breaks within a sentence, and often prefer two short sentences to one long sentence with multiple breaks.  Mix it up to avoid the Lullaby Effect, of course, but do so with this point in mind.

To all of this, you might say, "Great, then I'll just delete the comma."
STILL BAD: John hit the brakes turning right into the alley.

This brings up another problem: verb application (Subject-Predicate logic).  In other words, to which noun does the verb apply?  In the sentence above, is "John" turning or are the "brakes" turning?  If you're inclined to say, "Well, duh," I offer this illustration to explain reader confusion over improper, inconsistent sentence structure:
1)       He stood by the tree whistling a happy tune.
2)       He stood by the tree growing at a strange angle from the hillside.
3)       He stood by the tree swaying in the brisk wind.

In #1, that's one talented tree.  [Insert chuckle here.]  I know, it's supposed to be "he" that's whistling, right?  Really?  Then is "he" the one that's growing at a strange angle in #2?  No?  How are the two sentences different, structurally speaking?  In #3, is "he" swaying in the brisk wind, or is the "tree?"

Technically, #1 is incorrect (without a comma after "tree"), #2 is correct, and #3 is one or the other—we have no way to know.  If you require readers to translate your intentions, even if they seem perfectly obvious, you tread into dangerous territory.  Please, keep it simple, keep it direct, and keep it clear.

Wait, who's swaying?
Readers often lose track of who does what to whom.  In one study I read years ago (sorry, I don’t remember the source), they asked people to read four paragraphs, each containing two characters that engaged in particular acts, and later identify which character performed which act.

Version #1 contained primarily “-ing” verbs, which typically pointed from a subject and to an object only indirectly.  Version #2 contained primarily “-ed” verbs, which pointed directly from the subject to the object.

In Version #1, readers who were later tested chose correctly, when identifying which character performed which act, in only 40% of the instances (a failing grade in anybody's book).  In Version #2, readers were correct 75% of the time (an average score).

Practice and Practical Examples
In my upcoming entry, The "ING" Thing – Part 3, I'll provide a series of examples, taken from pieces I've edited, of poor ING use, and their preferred alternatives.  For now, I want to leave you with this cautionary plea:
If you must open a sentence with an Infinite-Verb Phrase, or use a Present Participle in a Past Tense narrative, because you can think of no better way to "mix up" the rhythm of your prose, please, do not misplace or confuse your modifiers.

To illustrate, I offer the following from what many consider the "bible" of writing.

The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan)
I've excerpted the following, in applicable segments, from pages 13-14.
            A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
                        Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.
            The word "walking" refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman.  If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he must recast the sentence.
                        He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.
            Sentences violating [this rule] are often ludicrous:
1)       Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
2)       Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
3)       As a mother of five, with another on the way, my ironing board is always up.

I truly, truly, truly hope that you easily recognize the problems with those three sentences, but just in case:
1)       "I" would be the one "in a dilapidated condition," rather than "the house."
2)       "The clock" is not capable of "wondering irresolutely."
3)       The "ironing board" not only has five children already; it's pregnant again.

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


  1. I just picked up "The Elements of Style." I feel like an idiot. Should have had this book years ago. Thanks.

    By the way, what I want to know is why that tree is so happy? [insert laugh here]

  2. Another great entry. I'm glad I found you, and now that I have a free Google account, my name will actually show up here, and I SUBSCRIBED in the Google Reader. Glad to be onboard.