A Writing Tip: Participle Phrases

Having done something, I proceeded to do something else somewhat related to the thing I had already done. Sometimes, while I’m doing something, i continue to do something completely unrelated to thing I thought I was doing.

Douglas Adams, mad genius that he was, once described a book on English for time travelers. It contained, among other things, modifications to the language so someone could describe an event that was going to happen in the future, but they jumped forward in time to avoid it, and were describing to future people as something that happened in the past. Past future imperfect tense or something like that. Willoen haven been making cookies when a burglar woulden have brokened in and …

The joke was the language became so complicated that no one read it and everything after chapter two was left blank to save on printing costs.

Which brings me to our good buddy participle phrases. For those of who slept through English grammar classes in High School like I did, a participle phrase a word group consisting of a present participle (ending in ing) or a past participle (ending in en or ed) plus modifiers, objects, or compliments. Shocking, I know. It’s amazing how English grammar classes could make an already cloudy language even stranger.

So, how about an example?

Having devoured the souls of his believers, Cthulhu kicked back and binge-watched Jessica Jones on Netflix.

or

Writing his memoirs, the president struggled with which best words to tell his ghostwriter to use.

A participle phrase is an a collection of words that act as an adjective. In the above sentences, “Having devoured the souls of his believers” modifies Cthulhu. It’s a bit of linguistic legerdemain that combines a pair of thoughts without tedious words like “and”. Is there anything wrong with participle phrases? Of course not; they’re perfectly cromulent ways to write. Are they the best, though? Aye, that’s the rub.

When I started writing, I had this insane idea that sentences needed to be complicated to be good. I also had a pretty crazy idea of what constituted good. Since then, I’ve found myself analyzing sentence structure in books I read and finding ways to integrate what I find into my own writing. One of the things I’ve found is participle phrases stand out in text, especially if they’re overused.

If every sentence consists of participle phrase followed by something happening the text tends to drag. Paragraph after paragraph of “Having done x, so-and-so proceeded to do y” is draining to read. Also, participle phrases tend to result in longer sentences. Longer sentences, especially in action-y or intense sections, slow things down because they take longer to parse.

That’s a bad thing. You never want to pull a reader out of the action. When the world is blowing up and the lingerie-clad armies of darkness are rolling over Duluth, you want the reader right there in the action, not pondering what part of the sentence modifies what other part.

Short, sharp sentences may not look as pretty, but they’re effective. While it would be nice to have a review that says, “This author’s mastery of the gerund and participle phrases was second only to an Ivy League professor” it would be better to have a review that said “I was sucked into the story and it never let me go.”

To pick on Cthulhu again – don’t worry, he tough – consider this sentence: Having devoured the souls of his believers, Cthulhu kicked back and binge-watched Jessica Jones on Netflix. The word use implies the worst is over and the action can slow down now. This is good place for a participle phrase.

What about this one: Devouring the soul of his high priest, Cthulhu smacked his lips and squeezed the life out of the puny thing shooting at him. There’s implied action in that line and taking the time to process twenty-two words pulls the reader out of that action. Cthulhu smacked his lips and devoured the soul of the high priest. A tiny thing shot at him. The Mad God squeezed the life out of it.

The action in the participle phrase seems to be happening simultuously, while there’s more of an x then y then z feel to the second example. You can afford to slow down when the action is over. Longer sentences take more time, but they allow the reader to slow down and relax a bit. Short sentences come rapid-fire and contribute to the excitement of the story.

Does that mean you should never use a participle phrase and stick to short sentences? Of course not. There’s no real right or wrong here. It’s largely up the author to choose how to present his or her story to readers. But, making good use of sentence structure can speed up or slow down a story. Participle phrases are a kind of grammar trickery. Use them to slow things down and give the reader some breathing space. Just watch out for using them too much, because like all kinds of trickery, if they get overused, they lose their luster and the writing begins to look lazy.

What do you think? Are you a fan of participle phrases?

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10 thoughts on “A Writing Tip: Participle Phrases

  1. I am not a fan of participle phrases, but they do have their place in writing. I tend to stick to short abrupt sentences. However, a participle phrased sentenced can slow the pace down between the bursts.

  2. I am a fan of participle phrases – but as you say, not in every sentence. They have their place, just as the passive voice has, or other linguistic devices. The trick it to know when and how to use each one and not to overdo it.

    1. I’m not a huge fan of them, but that’s just personal preference. Like you say, they have a place and, used well, can add something to a story. Use ’em wrong, and things start looking amateurish.

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