On writing: when your PP runneth over

Hi, kids! Andi here with a discussion about PP. That is, participial phrases. What the hell are those,  you ask. That’s okay. I still ask it and I’m trained in that editing stuff. Does it help if I say “the dreaded -ing words”? INGS! AAAAHHH!! NOT THE INGS! Yeah. THOSE words. They can overload your writing. Wanna find out how? Read on…

Okay. A participial phrase is a word group that consists of a past or present participle (stay with me here–think VERB) and any modifiers that work with that participle to create a phrase. That whole phrase then serves as a modifier for something else in a sentence. Okay, but what’s a participle, since those are the basis of participial phrases? A participle is a verb form that ends in -ed or -ing and functions as an adjective.

Grinning, he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the counter.

Okay, what’s the participle in that sentence? Grinning. It’s a verb. But is that the word that is functioning as a verb in that statement? No. The subject of the sentence is “he”. What action is he doing? He’s grinning, yes, but more directly, he’s completing a specific action–he’s pouring a cup of coffee. Grinning is a verb that’s masquerading as an adjective. Remember, the primary job of an adjective is to describe a noun. Grinning describes his expression. It’s a verb that’s describing a noun, so it’s being sneaky. That makes it a participle. So a participial phrase, then, is a phrase that contains a participle and the whole freakin’ thing pretends to be an adjective (or, on rare occasions, a noun).

Whew. Would it not SUCK to learn English as a second language? Because so many times, you’ve got words AND phrases that can act as different grammatical things in different contexts. And sometimes, these PPs, as I call them, can make your writing cumbersome and put your characters in crazy situations. We’ll get to that in a moment. First, an intervention.

Hi. I’m Andi. And I use participial phrases. The awesome Nann Dunne recently pointed this out to me (see my column in the October 2009 issue of Just About Write), and she gently instructed me that it’s much better to limit your use of participial phrases (to, say, 2-3 a page) in order to maintain a smooth flow and create stronger, more active sentences. I’ve gotten better about it, but she’s right. It’s something I need to pay more attention to, and I’m passing it along to you here, because we could all use some help with our “ings”, as I call them.

Anyway, let’s get to some examples of participial phrases and how they can both help and hinder your writing.

Walking down the street, she thought about where she could change into her kick-ass superhero costume.

Okay, what’s the participle? If you said “walking,” yowza! Jump back and kiss yourself, as Mr. James Brown would have had you do. So…what’s the participial phrase? The participle is your hint. If you said “walking down the street,” you may already have won a trip to Grammar Land. You can usually find a phrase set off from the main part of the sentence thanks to punctuation. In this case, the comma is helping the participial phrase in its subterfuge (acting like an adjective).

First, let’s find the subject in that sentence. Is it “street”? No. It’s the superhero chick looking for a safe space to change into her kick-ass costume. Now look for the verb that’s acting like a verb. Is it “walking”? No. Why not? You’ll need the other words before that comma to help you with that. “Walking” is attached to “down the street”. It’s not a complete sentence, so we know it’s a phrase. Is this a sentence? “Walking down the street.” No. So you know it’s a phrase. The phrase must be modifying something, because that’s what phrases are supposed to do. Down at the Grammar Factory, phrases are churned out of the primodial grammar stew for the sole purpose of modifying the other parts of the sentence. So we’ve found our subject–“she”. Look for the verb closest to the first mention of that subject. It’s “thought.” That’s what she’s actually doing AS she’s walking. So the phrase “walking down the street” involves some action (walking is a verb, after all), but it’s acting like an adjective because it’s helping describe the woman who is thinking about her superhero costume.

Here are a few more examples, to help you get a better sense of what to look for:

Cackling with wicked fervor, the witches poured extra Jack Daniel’s into their eye of newt stew.

Moaning hideously, Fenway Parker slammed the front door in an attempt to scare the trick-or-treaters.

Shrieking like a banshee, Elinda descended to the ground floor on the dumbwaiter.

Got those participles picked out? Cackling, Moaning, Shrieking. Got the phrases picked out? Cackling with wicked fervor/Moaning hideously/Shrieking like a banshee. These are participial phrases because they can’t stand on their own as sentences and they have that -ing verb in there (the participle). Okay, what’s so wrong with the -ings? Well, as Renni Browne and Dave King point out in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (HarperResource, 1994), -ing words are a sign of amateur writers and awareness of them will help you smooth out and clean up your writing. Too many -ing words and phrases can end up removing some of your action from the subject, which can end up making that action seem unimportant. Sort of like if you have too many adjectives describing something–it ends up diminishing the effectiveness of the sentence. Witness:

The bright red apple hung from the tree.


The shiny, bright, smooth, enticing, perfectly formed apple hung from the tree.

Sentence one: pretty! Yummy! Sentence two: zzzzz…okay, we get the point. It’s a freakin’ apple, already.

And so it can go with PPs. Check it:

Gripping the knife handle, Eleanor looked around the dining room, trying to determine whether she really did hear a scary noise. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, she returned to her room and got back into bed. Hearing something again, she reached this time for her Kimber pistol.

Let’s rewrite this, sans the PPs.

Eleanor gripped the knife handle and looked around the dining room. What was the source of the noise? Had she really heard something? She found nothing out of the ordinary so she returned to her room and got back into bed. Not five minutes later, she heard it again, but this time, she reached for her Kimber pistol.

Can you see the difference? Too many -ing words (too many PPs!) can actually end up making your writing feel cluttered and overly passive.

The other problem with -ing words is that they can create physically impossible situations:

Leaping out of bed, Eleanor ran to the door.

Read that sentence aloud. The way it’s written–with the participial phrase “leaping out of bed”–it’s as if she’s doing two things at the same time: leaping out of bed while she’s running to the door. How about:

Eleanor leaped [or leapt, depending on which English you speak] out of bed and ran to the door.


Running down the stairs, she looked for her keys by the door.

Okay, wait. How can she look for her keys while she’s running? How about:

She ran down the stairs and looked for her keys by the door.

The Grammar Wench has some great examples (I’ve followed her lead) HERE. For more info on how to recognize PPs, try this University of California site. Brainbits offers nice examples as well as correct usage (if you decide to go there) HERE. Again, PPs aren’t necessarily as evil as the Grammar Wench says. But they can be, if you let them possess you and overrun your sentences. I’ve allowed them to do that, herds of wild -ings rampaging through my paragraphs. And as I tell people who write, “less is more.” Something I have to remind myself to do, too.

All right, friends. Thanks for stopping by and happy writing!


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