Today, we are going to speak about one of the most maligned bits of grammar in the English language. The present participle phrase. This is also sometimes referred to as the present participle clause. Why, oh why, is this little phrase so discouraged and frowned upon?
Most people who consider themselves writing experts will scare you away from using present participle phrases with strong words. It simply isn’t to be done. It’s a sign of an amateurish writing style. However, when you ask such experts why, they will say something to you such as “You mustn’t use present participle phrases because…monsters. Monsters!” One website I visited that was giving advice on how to vary sentence structure gave a single example of how to do that, and then said “But don’t use present participle phrases!” No insight as to why, except to say that the site writer hated them. “Don’t use them because of all the hate!”
Now me, I love present participle phrases. I think they are a very easy and gentle way to mix up one’s sentence structure. Subject first sentences get boring to read.
A man walked to the store. He was walking down the sidewalk when a rabid wombat jumped in front of him, startling him. The man was surprised to see a wombat in Louisville. He wondered if it had escaped from the zoo. He also wondered what one should do when faced with a rabid wombat.
Walking to the store, a man was startled when a rabid wombat jumped in front of him. Surprised to see a wombat in Louisville, he wondered if it had escaped from the zoo, and what one should do when faced by a rabid wombat.
“Walking to the store” is a present participle phrase. But, oh no, you seem to say, aren’t you mixing tenses? I see “walking, startled, and jumped” in the same sentence! Monsters!
No dear reader, no monsters here. In writing the phrase “Walking to the store” one is turning the whole clause into a adjective which describes “a man.” Adjective clauses have no real tense, so it’s perfectly legal. Which man is it? The one that’s walking to the store. “Surprised to see a wombat” is an example of a past participle phrase. Who’s surprised to see a wombat? He was.
I enjoy present participle phrases. So much so, that I have had to be wary of using too many. The interesting thing is, I have found that while people get confused when considering an example of a present participle clause all by itself, they are not at all bothered by finding them in an entire piece of writing. I put an example on my facebook recently, and all the friends that read that lone sentence had problems with it. However, in the fiction I have published on line, as well as the book I’ve had some people beta reading, not one reader has had an issue with it. Even in my online work, where I asked all of my readers to alert me of any typos or other issues they found while reading, not one mentioned participle phrases or problems with tense.
Consider the following excerpt from Wyrd House:
Unlocking the front door, Myra walked into her home of the last three months and immediately felt her spirits lift. Wyrd House was a peaceful place, not only because of the people who lived there, but because the house itself seemed infused with an atmosphere of content. Myra was sensitive to places, and she had never before lived anywhere that had such a calm and happy aura. She assumed it was because of Erin’s long residence. Erin was the calmest and most cheerful person of Myra’s acquaintance. Setting her things in the hall closet, she followed her nose into the kitchen, where the other denizens of Wyrd House were just sitting down to dinner.
Most readers wouldn’t think twice about the present participle phrases contained in that paragraph. If anything, the mixing up of the sentence structure give readers a break from subject first sentence after subject first sentence. Certainly one can mix up sentence structure in other ways, but why should we limit ourselves?
I asked an editor what the trouble with present participle phrases were, and the only answer she had was that they are too easy to get wrong. “But what if they aren’t wrong?” I asked. She had no reply to that, except to say most people didn’t use them. It is so easy to do it correctly, that I see no reason not to use them.
Clause, subject. It’s as easy as that. You write the clause, put in a comma, and the very next word must be the subject of the clause. My editor friend seemed to think it would be too easy to write, “Driving down the road, a dog jumped in front of the car.” However, I think that is monster talk. No writer or reader could possibly look at that sentence and not see that it was wrong. Everyone can see that the sentence in question has a dog driving the car as well as jumping in front of it.
So I say to you, gentle readers, be brave! Ignore the monster shouters, and the very next thing you write, put a present participle phrase in it!
As I have mentioned before, I am not a grammar queen. I make mistakes just as anyone can. There could be mistakes in this very post! I simply want to share with you some things about grammar that catch my fancy.
Noticing that it’s time to make dinner, I save my article and close my laptop. Homemade pizza night! Yum!
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A few questions from a non-native speaker who teaches writing…
Walking to the store, a man was startled when a rabid wombat jumped in front of him.
I’d say “While (he was) on his way to the store” is a better alternative, stylistically, as there’s no need to multiply participles – and for me participle clauses weigh down writing and yes, non-native users of English tend to use dangling modifiers / participle clauses which do not refer to the right part of the sentence. I wouldn’t say the example is incorrect, but it does sound slightly awkward to me. That said, I can think of instances where a participle clause would be preferable.
Unlocking the front door, Myra walked into her home of the last three months and immediately felt her spirits lift.
Here I’d say the participle clause is a mistake – as it is, the two actions appear to be concurrent, when in fact they are consecutive. “Having unlocked” would make more sense to me, or “After unlocking”.
And finally: could you comment on clauses using “being”? I find them particularly awkward (not always, but quite often), but perhaps that’s a prejudice on my part? 😉
Your examples are perfectly correct. The easiest way to change up your sentence structure is to use words like While, After, Today, Tomorrow, Before, etc. In other words, words that denote time in some way, or words that denote when something happened. “While he walked to the store, he…” When did it happen? When he was walking to the store. This was, by the way, the only suggestion made by the writer of that article I was talking about. My aim was to show examples of an alternative, which my research has shown does not seem especially awkward to native speakers. However, (there’s another way to mix up sentence structure!) it never occured to me that this might be problematic for non-native speakers.
I can give you some examples of “being,” though I don’t know how to diagram the sentence for you.
Being like-minded on the subject, Brad and Amy decided that Chicago’s Pizza was the best pizza in town.
Being winded from his long run, the athelete decided not to try to answer the phone.
Being at the forefront of wild wombat reasearchers, The Wombat Company decided to publish their findings to the Journal of Modern Wombat Husbandry.
Some online sources say to avoid such sentences, as they are a very “passive voice” choice.
I hope that helps!