When I first started writing fiction, I happened upon a writing tutorial that admonished to never, never, never start a sentence with an “ing” word. That bugged me, since one of my big rules is to mix up sentence structure. So I started to pay attention to what “the greats” did, and I found that “rule” not so widely observed.
What authors really need to beware, in my opinion, is misusing the “ing” words.
Last week we took a quick look at gerunds – the term for a verb that acts as a noun. You can read about it here. I think most of us get this usage.
The real problem I see over and over is the misuse of present participles.
What the heck is a present participle? Uh…hold on….
I haven’t studied parts of speech in about….never mind, I can’t remember that either…so I turned to Purdue’s OWL for a clear explanation:
A participle is a verbal that is used as an adjective and most often ends in -ing or -ed. (Okay, got that.) The term verbal indicates that a participle, like the other two kinds of verbals, is based on a verb and therefore expresses action or a state of being. However, since they function as adjectives, participles modify nouns or pronouns. There are two types of participles: present participles and past participles. Present participles end in -ing. Past participles end in -ed, -en, -d, -t, -n, or -ne as in the words asked, eaten, saved, dealt, seen, and gone.
Aha! Did you catch the two types: present and past?
The “present” usage means that the “ing” action is taking place in that moment. Now.
So, to use my “run” example from last week: “Running to my car, I wiped sweat from my brow.”
Makes sense, right? You can picture a person (I’ll say a woman, just for sake of the image) is finishing up her daily jog in the park, and she’s miserable because sweat is running from her scalp, into her eyes, like she’s under a shower head. And she can’t see and is heading across the street so she swipes her forearm along her hairline. And now her arm feels all gross…” (Oh sorry, once again my running prejudice seeps in!)
My point is, you can picture the action taking place, in the present.
In my head, I add the word “while” in front: “While running to my car, I wiped…” It’s happening now.
How about this? “Running to my car, I answered my cell.”
Yep. Still okay. I can picture it. The woman is running. The cell phone rings. The woman grabs it from her pocket and answers. She might fall on her face, but she’s able to run while answering her cell.
Yet, so often I’ll see this:
“Running to my car, I drove my son to preschool.”
Screech! Can you picture that? Our woman is rushing to get her son to preschool because she needs just two lousy hours of sanity! She’s running to her car and….and…how can she be driving while she’s running?
What the author really means is “After running to my car, I drove…” (Of course that sets off a whole other debate whether it would be better to just state, “I ran to my car, then drove my son to preschool.” But that’s a debate for a different day.)
So today’s lesson: For me, it’s okay to begin sentences with “ing” words and phrases (as an overall strategy for a good mix of sentence construction). Just please make sure the action that’s taking place in the moment doesn’t clash with the rest of action.
Happy writing, happy reading!
After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.