Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The perils of present participles: Part II

Last week's posting defined the present participle, discussed the present participle's function in a sentence, and pointed out one common mistake in usage - placing present participle or participial phrase so that it modifies the wrong word in the sentence. The other common mistake in the use of participial phrases involves time order.

When a present participial phrase is used in a sentence, the writer indicates that the action in the participial phrase is occurring at the same time as the action in the main clause of the sentence. A writer must understand this time implication in order to use present participial phrases correctly.


Walking into the room, he helped himself to a large plate of food from the buffet. [He has to walk into the room before he can help himself to a plate of food.]

Zipping herself into her sleeping bag, she snored all night long. [She has to zip herself in before she falls asleep and snores.]


Smiling broadly, Georgia shook hands with the President. [The smiling and shaking hands are occurring at the same time.]

Shouting at the top of his lungs, Ralph raced after the pickpocket. [Although Ralph could shout before he races after the pickpocket, the use of the present participial phrase informs the reader that he is shouting while he is racing after the pickpocket.]

In Brief: Do not use a present participial phrase unless the action in the phrase is happening at the same time as the action in the main clause.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

The perils of present participles: Part I

The present participle of a verb is formed by adding -ing to the present form of the verb. Present participles can be used as adjectives to modify or describe persons, places, or things.

The crying baby annoyed all the other passengers on the plane. [The present participle crying modifies or describes the noun baby.]

Present participles can also be used to begin participial phrases, which consist of the participle and its object and/or modifiers. Like participles, participial phrases function as adjectives to modify nouns or pronouns.

Staring into the bathroom mirror, Janelle touched up her eye makeup. [The participial phrase "staring into the bathroom mirror" modifies the noun Janelle.]

The old man and woman, remembering their wedding day, smiled at each other. [The participial phrase "remembering their wedding day" modifies the nouns man and woman.]

Mrs. LaRue was horrified to see the children darting heedlessly into the busy street. [The participial phrase "darting heedlessly into the busy street" modifies the noun children.]

  • When a participial phrase begins the sentence, it modifies the subject.
  • A participial phrase in the middle of the sentence is set off by comas and follows the noun or pronoun it modifies.
  • A participial phrase at the end of the sentence modifies the noun or pronoun it follows.

Writing instructors stress the importance of varying the types of sentences used within a paragraph. This is important in non-fiction as well as in fiction. Beginning a sentence with a participial phrase can be an effective way of doing that, as long as it is done infrequently and as long as the present participial phrase is used correctly.

Using present participial phrases correctly can be tricky, so beginning writers are often advised to avoid using them at all.

One common error occurs when the participial phrase is placed so that it modifies the wrong noun.


Having been thoroughly instructed in the safety procedures, Mr. Williams let us begin the science experiment. [This sentence is incorrect because Mr. Williams (the subject) is the one who did the instructing, not the one who received the instruction.]

Possible corrections:

Keeping the participial phrase unchanged: Having been thoroughly instructed in the safety procedures, we were allowed to begin the science experiment.

Changing the sentence to eliminate the participial phrase: After he had thoroughly instructed us in the safety procedures, Mr. Williams let us begin the science experiment.


In Brief: A participial phrase that begins a sentence must modify the subject of the sentence. Participial phrases used elsewhere in the sentence must modify the nouns or pronouns that precede them.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Regarding relatives: using relative pronouns

Relative pronouns are used to introduce relative clauses. Relative clauses function as adjectives in sentences, which means that they describe or give more information about a noun or pronoun. Unlike adjectives, however, relative clauses follow the noun or pronoun they modify.

There are five relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, and that. The first two, who and whom, are used to refer to people or animals. The last two, which and that, are used to refer to places or things. Neither should be used to refer to people. Whose, the only possessive form, may be used to refer to either.

There are two types of relative clausesrestrictive and non-restrictive.
  • A relative clause is restrictive when it is necessary to identify the noun or pronoun it modifies. No commas are needed before or after a restrictive clause.
The boy who led the team onto the field is my son. [The clause 'who led the team onto the field' is necessary to identify the particular boy to whom the clause refers.]
  • A relative clause is non-restrictive when the information in the clause provides extra information but is not necessary to identify the person, place, or thing it modifies. Commas are needed before and after a non-restrictive clause.
John, who led the team onto the field, is my son. [The boy is already identified by name, so the information in the clause is not necessary to identify him and is thus non-restrictive.]

Note that whether commas are used or not can actually indicate a difference in meaning of the same sentence.

The principal who sat at the head of the table proposed a toast. [Lack of commas implies that there are a number of principals sitting at the table; the clause identifies one in particular.]

The principal, who sat at the head of the table, proposed a toast. [The use of commas implies that only one principal is sitting at the table; therefore, mentioning his position at the table is not necessary to identify her or him.]

It is not vital to remember the names of the two types of relative clauses. What is important is knowing that commas are needed if the information in the clause is not necessary to identify the particular person, place, or thing the clause modifies.

In Brief: Use the relative pronouns who and whom to refer to people. Use commas before and after non-restrictive relative clauses.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Pick up the pace: rein in the intrusive narrator

As you all know, the narrator is the person or character who is telling the story, whether the story is fiction or non-fiction. While the narrator has a vital part in telling the story, an intrusive narrator can slow the pace of a piece of writing by interfering with the progress of the story. Intrusive narration also distances the reader from the story and reduces its impact.

The intrusive narrator is most commonly found in first-person narrative; however, a third-person limited narrator can also become intrusive. Since first-person and third-person limited narrators are inevitably involved in the story, just when does such a narrator become intrusive?

  • A narrator becomes intrusive when she or he unnecessarily inserts herself/himself into the story.
I heard the front door shut. I listened to heavy footsteps pounding down the hall. When the study door opened, I saw a tall, dark-haired man I didn't recognize. I screamed as I watched him stride toward me.

In the paragraph above, the phrases in blue type are examples of intrusive narration. None of them are necessary. In first-person and third-person limited narration, everything mentioned in the story is what the narrator sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels, thinks, surmises, etc. When "I saw," "I watched," "I heard," "I knew," and other similar phrases are frequently used in the narration, the narrator becomes intrusive.

Removal of these phrases in the revision below brings the reader right into the action and increases the tension in the scene.

The front door shut. Heavy footsteps pounded down the hall. When the study door opened, a tall, dark-haired man I didn't recognize paused in the doorway. I screamed as he strode toward me.

Not only does intrusive narration slow the pace and distance the reader from the action, it is also an insult to the reader's intelligence. The reader understands that everything in the narrator relates is something he or she experiences, so the narrator does not need to keep reminding the reader of this. An intrusive narrator becomes increasingly annoying.

In Brief: To rein in the intrusive narrator, check each instance that the narrator sees, watches, hears, feels, knows, or thinks something. If those phrases can be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence - if the seeing, hearing, etc. is not the point of the sentence - eliminate them.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pick up the pace: eliminate verb villains

Once a writer has learned to avoid the use of the passive voice, the next step is to work on his or her choice of active verbs. The verbs a writer uses should be as specific as possible. The use of specific verbs: 
  • creates a clearer, more vivid image in the reader's mind.
  • helps the writer avoid overuse of common, non-specific verbs.

Many writers fall into the habit of depending on certain non-specific verbs, using these verbs so frequently that they jar the reader into noticing them, thus distracting the reader from the story. Anything that distracts the reader from the story slows the pace. Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, skillful pacing is one way to keep the reader eager to continue reading.

There are a number of these overused verb villains, and they may vary from writer to writer.  Common culprits include but are not limited to:  go, turn, move, get, come.

Below is an example of a short selection that needs revision. The verb villains in the example are highlighted. Two other verbs which could be improved by replacement with more specific verbs are in boldface.

I heard a noise behind me. I turned and saw a huge man with a hammer in his hand. When he moved toward me, I screamed. 

Rodger shouted from upstairs. I yelled his name and heard his footsteps coming down the stairs. The man turned and ran out the door. I moved to the bottom of the steps and turned to hug Rodger as he reached the bottom step. When I told him about the man, he moved past me, picked up the phone, and dialed 9-1-1.

These two paragraphs should relate a tense, exciting scene, but the use of non-specific verbs greatly reduces the impact.

Below is a revision using more specific verbs.

I heard a noise behind me. I spun around and saw a huge man with a hammer in his hand. When he stepped toward me, I screamed.

Rodger shouted from upstairs. I yelled his name and heard his footsteps pounding down the stairs. The huge man wheeled and raced out the door. I dashed to the stairs and hugged Rodger as he reached the bottom step. When I told him about the man, he slipped past me, grabbed the phone, and dialed 9-1-1.

Each verb revision in the selection gives the reader a more precise mental image of the action. Although the paragraphs need further revision, replacing the non-specific verb villains is a definite improvement.

In Brief:  Beware of overuse of non-specific verbs. Revise to eliminate them from your writing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Purge the passive - active and passive voice of verbs

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, a writer needs to keep his or her language active. Passive language is less direct and has less impact. Consistent use of passive language slows the pace and may cause readers to lose interest.  There are a number of ways a writer's language can become passive. One common way is the frequent use of the passive voice of the verb.

An action verb is in the active voice when the subject is doing the action and in the passive voice when the subject is receiving the action.

Active:    The wide receiver caught the ball in the end zone. [The subject - wide receiver - is doing the action of catching.]

PassiveThe ball was caught in the end zone by the wide receiver. [The subject - ball - is not doing the action of catching.]

The passive voice is formed using some form of the verb be with the past participle of the verb.

By looking at the two examples above, you can see that the passive voice slows the pace because the passive sentence is longer. In addition, any change in the customary word order (where the subject is the performer of the action, is placed near the beginning of the sentence, and is followed by the verb) causes the reader to slow his or her pace of reading.

While using the active voice is preferable, there are two instances when the use of the passive voice is necessary.
  • The passive voice can be used when the person who performed the action is unknown.
The walls of the room had been painted a pale green. [The painter is unknown.]
  • The passive voice can be used when the writer wants to emphasize the receiver of the action. In a sentence, the subject of the sentence is accorded more attention or importance than the direct object. Thus, making the receiver of the action (normally the direct object) the subject of the sentence gives the receiver more emphasis.
The doctor gave all the children a flu shot. [The emphasis is on the doctor.]

All the children were given a flu shot by the doctor. [The emphasis is on the children.]

Note: When the verb is in the passive voice, the person who does the action (normally the subject) is often indicated in a prepositional phrase beginning with by.

In Brief: Use active language in your writing. Avoid using the passive voice of verbs.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writers must read

Reading is an indispensable skill and a requirement for a writer. Reading has the power to transform writing, and extensive reading can perform magic for a writer.

While those statements reflect truths, they are general. Such general statements can be more frustrating than helpful, so I'll give you a personal illustration of the importance of reading to writing.

As a high school English teacher, I was taught that frequent reading improves not only a student's reading but also his or her writing skills. I did not question that assertion because it made sense. (Scientists have undoubtedly conducted studies which show the correlation.) Still, knowing something intellectually is not the same as actually experiencing it. I finally had the chance to see a dramatic demonstration of the relationship between reading and writing when I had children of my own.

I blush to admit that my children's writing abilities were less than stellar. I proofread all my daughter's papers through tenth grade and cringed at the errors and deficiencies. While she made the corrections, neither my efforts nor her teachers' had lasting results, and she continued making the same mistakes.

During the summer between tenth and eleventh grades, my daughter raided my shelves of historical romance books and read a good number of them. This surprised and pleased me because she had never done much voluntary reading before.

In the fall, she began a college prep English course. I braced myself to proofread her first paper, but instead of the usual substandard effort, her writing had improved so much that I wondered if a ghostwriter had typed the paper through her hands. The paper needed little correction. I was too dumbfounded to figure out the reason for the improvement myself, but when I mentioned the miracle to my husband, he blithely said, "Of course. She's been reading all summer."

The light bulb went on!

[FYI: My daughter is now in her eighth year of teaching elementary school; now she gets to do the correcting!]

In brief: If you want to be a writer, read ... read ... read!