Friday, August 12, 2011

Participle Phrases: The Sort-of Good and the Really Bad and Ugly

A participle phrase is a type of modifier associated with a noun or pronoun. The phrase consists of a participle, typically an "-ing" word, and any accompanying words needed for sense and clarity.  Below are sample sentences containing "-ing" participle phrases (underlined), with explanations of why, at best, they are only sort-of good and can turn bad and ugly if the writer is not careful.

Sort-of Good

Standing at the window, he contemplated the view.

This is a grammatically correct sentence and, on occasion, such a construction is useful. In particular, it can sometimes be the briefest way to portray two actions that occur simultaneously. Contemporary stylists advise against overuse because the participle form is a less direct way of expressing action than are the simple past and present tenses. In fiction, especially, overuse of the participle phrase can have the effect of distancing the reader from the action, and a distanced reader will soon lose interest in the story and characters. A subject-verb-verb construction is often the best choice: He stood at the window and contemplated the view.

Really Bad and Ugly

Apart from possibly distancing your reader, unrestrained use of participle phrases can lead you astray into false simultaneity: Standing at the window, he contemplated the view and went out for a breath of fresh air. He can stand and contemplate simultaneously, but he cannot both stand and go outside at the same time. To take another example: Rising from the sofa, she left the room. These two actions can only occur sequentially, unless the sofa is wedged in the doorway. There are numerous possible corrections, such as: She rose from the sofa, said her good-byes, and left the room.

Overuse of participle phrases also courts the dreaded dangling participle, which dangles because it has lost what it is supposed to modify: Standing at the window, the view made him feel contemplative. Though we know what this means, it is wrong because he, and not the view, is standing at the window.

And finally, a really ugly dangler: Driving along the highway, a sign pointed north. But even this can be cleaned up and made more attractive:  Driving along the highway, he saw a sign that pointed north. Or: As John drove along the highway, he saw a sign pointing north.

Now, how about going through your manuscript and making over your own less-than-attractive participle phrases?

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