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Get Your Grammar Fix(ed): Participial Phrases Can Be Weasels.

Cute, fuzzy stealth. That's what weasels are about.

When we're not paying attention, sometimes even when we ARE, participial phrases convince us they're the best candidate for the job. They weasel their way in and tempt our trust.

And on the surface, these participial weasels might look cute. But they lie and do not the truth.

Now, I've known many perfectly genial and cooperative participial phrases, so I'm not going to generalize. Suffice it to say, you need to be wary. Use discernment. Don't fall for a fuzzy face and big, sweet eyes.

Here's a conversation I had with one as I wrote recently:

Me: This sentence is boring. 

Participle Perry: Show me. Look at my round, soulful eyes. I want to know.

Me: Okay. Here. 
I write in my office as my kids play in the next room.

PP: *snore* 

Me: Perry!

PP: What? Oh, you were...yeah. That's pretty pathetic. Nobody will even care. What separates you from the other writing mothers out there? Not. A. Thing. And in this business, you've got to stand out somehow.

Me: All right! Quit with the critique and help me then. 

PP: What if I jump in there and liven it up a bit. I'm cute enough. Let me give it a whirl. *blinks adorable eyes*

Me: Aw. Okay.

PP: *wiggles in* Here's your new sentence.  
Laughing maniacally, I write in my office as my kids play in the next room.

Me: Wait. Maybe my kids should be the ones laughing.

PP: Sure, I'll move over. Get closer to the Littles. How 'bout now?  
I write in my office, laughing maniacally, as my kids play in the next room.

Me: I see what you did there.

PP: Heh. Caught that, did ya? I'm right here, you know. I see who's maniacal.  

Me: You're WAY overstepping, dude. Keep moving.

PP: Fine.  
I write in my office as my kids, laughing maniacally, play in the next room.  
Or I can slide to the end. I'm cute anywhere.

Me: No, you're good there. Shut up and hold still. 

Pay careful attention to ANYTHING that ends with -ing. Here are a few key rules.

First, be sure that, since -ing is the progressive form of the verb, the action is meant to be continuous. If it's something that happened once, you don't need the -ing.

Jerrifica whistled and scanned the edge of the forest.

What? I was in the mood for an unusual name. Still, you've got to admit it paints a different picture than:

Jerrifica, whistling, scanned the edge of the forest. 

Sentence A makes Terrifica Jerrifica sound like she's just arrived at a clandestine meeting and given the secret signal. Sentence B? Not so much. Maybe looking for her favorite bird?

Second, don't use -ing if the two verbs in the sentence can't happen simultaneously.

Alfonzebub, getting dressed as fast as possible, ran down the steps to the bus stop.   

Um, no. Dude needs to put clothes on before he leaves his apartment. And even if it's possible for him to get dressed as he runs, your readers don't want to see it.

Third, don't overuse participial phrases. On the surface, they look like a nice way to change sentence structure and infuse variety. Hey, they're full of action. But remember, when you overuse anything, it gets tiresome. Instead of adding to your writing repertoire, you might instead provide yourself a new pet weasel. 

And no writer wants another weasel word. Or phrase. Or any kind of weasel at all. 


                                            Thanks to Elysium 2010 and Steve Richmond for the images.


  1. Good thing there are talented editors like you. Cuz ya know, I need an editor :)

  2. I just love that we each think the other talented and kewl. Writers like you are the reasons I love my job. :)


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