Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Minding Your "ings"

Running to the bus stop, rain began to fall.

This sort of sentence pops up a lot in stories that I edit. Tell me: in the example above, who is running? There are two nouns in the sentence (“the bus stop” and “rain”), but neither of them is running. That’s the problem here—you generally can’t have an action in a sentence without a subject to perform it. “Rain” is the subject of the sentence (you can tell because it’s the only noun that’s performing an action—in this case, beginning to fall). Since there isn’t any other subject, this sentence implies that the rain was running to the bus stop when it began to fall.

Let’s get technical for a moment. Running, like many “ing” forms of verbs, is what we call a present participle. Present participles have many uses—in the example above, the participle is being used to indicate that an action (running) is taking place simultaneous to another action (the rain beginning to fall). The entire phrase (“running to the bus stop”) is what we call an adverbial phrase—that is, a phrase that acts as an adverb, modifying action. But even though the phrase is acting as an adverb, the present participle is still a verb; it needs to have a subject performing the action, and that subject has to be present in the same sentence as the participle. When the subject that should be attached to a participle is missing, we call this a dangling participle.

Now, you don’t actually have to remember all of that. Here’s what you need to remember: if you use an “ing” verb, it still needs to be performed by a subject. With that in mind, there are several ways that we could fix our example sentence:

     As Brad was running to the bus stop, rain began to fall.
     Running to the bus stop, Brad was dismayed when rain began to fall.
     Rain began to fall. Running to the bus stop, Brad was caught right in the middle of it.

In the first solution, we simply insert the proper subject into the original sentence. In the second solution, we make “Brad” the subject of the entire sentence, moving “rain” to a peripheral position. In the third example, we make “Brad” the subject of the sentence and move “rain” to its own sentence. Any of these solutions is adequate, though the first solution is strongest (see if you can figure out why).

Now, sometimes an “ing” verb can still be confusing even if the subject is present in the sentence:

     Brad left the group cursing.

Who is cursing—Brad or the group? If it’s Brad, then this could be cleared up by moving the “ing” verb to the beginning of the sentence:

     Cursing, Brad left the group.

Here are some other examples of dangling participles—if you want some practice, try fixing each of these:

     Reading a book, the dog scratched at my leg.
     She left the room sleepwalking.
     Opening the refrigerator, the milk carton fell to the floor and broke open.
     Falling from the sky in flames, the house was crushed by the airplane wreckage.

But be warned: this is not the only common problem that can arise with "ing" verbs. Check out these two posts for more.

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