One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear as a writer is to avoid using adverbs. To some writers, the adverb is the spawn of the grammar devil. “Search your manuscript for any words ending in -ly,” they’ll say, “and kill them with fire.”
It’s sound advice to watch out for your quicklies and loudlies and antidisestablieshmentarilies and make sure that they’re really necessary. But there’s another form of grammar which gets overused by beginning writers: the participle phrase.
In case it’s been a while since you took English 101, a participle phrase is a verb phrase that serves as an adjective or adverb:
Strutting up to the car, Mary held out her hands.
The running back charged through the defenders, leaving linebackers scattered in his wake.
Strutting up to them is a participle phrase which modifies the noun ‘Mary,’ and leaving linebackers scattered in his wake is a participle phrase which modifies the verb ‘charged.’ Note that participle phrases are different from gerunds, which are verb phrases which serve as nouns:
Skiing through trees is my favorite pastime.
He wasn’t quite used to the process of transforming himself into a unicorn.
Like the passive voice (another form of grammar that you’ve surely been warned about), participle phrases are weak and indirect. They decorate a clause with an additional, “this-is-happening-too” verb, instead of being broken out into their own clause. Participle phrases are like the sprig of parsley that garnishes your soup: they look pretty and smell nice, but don’t mistake them for the main course.
Writers sometimes use participle phrases as a way of ‘adding an extra verb’ to a sentence. But if the action described by the phrase is an important one, it’s probably better off as its own clause or sentence. For example:
Swinging the sword with all of his might, the knight chopped off the dragon’s head.
The knight’s mighty swing is important enough to be treated as an actual verb clause, instead of a tacked-on phrase:
The knight swung his sword with all of his might and chopped off the dragon’s head.
The participle phrase can seem even more tacked-on when it doesn’t make sense when combined with the main verb of the sentence. People can certainly look around while walking into a room, or pick up an object while speaking. But what about this?
“You are finished,” the knight said, swinging his sword and chopping off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.
Wowsers, that’s quite the participle: two verbs and a prepositional phrase, all glued to a line of dialogue. Even if you assume that it’s possible to say that while actually chopping off a dragon’s head, it makes the swinging and chopping seem like a casual, tacked-on action. That might work for chopping a head of lettuce, but probably not for the head of dragon. Compare it with this:
“You are finished,” the knight said. He swung his sword and chopped off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.
So what should you use instead of participle phrases? Your best bet is the good ol’ subject-verb-object. Compare these passages:
Sliding down the bannister, Joey hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He skidded across the floor in his socks, flailing his arms wildly. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, leaping down the stairs after him. Turning the corner into the living room, Joey braked to a halt in front of their mother.
Four participle phrases in four sentences—a bit of an extreme example, but I’ve seen passages that were almost as bad. Compare it with this version:
Joey slid down the bannister and hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He flailed his arms wildly as he skidded across the floor in his socks. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, and leaped down the stairs after him. Joey turned the corner into the living room and braked to a halt in front of their mother.
Breaking the actions into separate clauses gives a much more immediate feeling to the action. It’s probably not necessary to eliminate every participle phrase from this passage: flailing his arms wildly is a good description of what he’s doing while he skids across the room in his socks. Whether you keep that phrase or not depends on what sort of effect and style you’re going for.
Which brings us to the most important point of all—just like the passive voice and adverbs, participle phrases are not evil. It’s not necessary to purge your writing of all -ly and -ing suffixes, but make sure you know when (and why) they work and don’t work. If you want to write bam-bam, bare-bones action like Elmore Leonard, you’re going to develop stylistic rules that are very different than if you want to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald. So re-read your favorite authors and try to figure out what makes their style work. Do this for as many authors as you can, and then you can develop your own style, picking the choices and styles that you like best.
To (mis-)quote Arthur C. Clarke: All these forms of grammar are yours. Use them wisely. Use them in peace.
filed under spawn-of-the-grammar-devil