We’ve previously discussed proper use of present participles (a form of verb that ends in “ing”) in this post and this post. It may be helpful to have read those two articles before you read this one.
In those posts, we went over the need for an “ing” verb to have a subject in the sentence that performs it—usually, present participles are used to indicate that one subject is performing two or more actions simultaneously. For example:
Humming to herself, Jalila began to paint.
In this sentence, Jalila is performing both actions—humming and painting. Most sentences that use this type of “ing” verb are formatted along these lines, with a single subject. However, it is possible to have multiple subjects in a single sentence performing simultaneous actions:
Her back was still as straight as a rod, her fingernails digging into the steering wheel and leaving imprints in the faux leather.
This sentence follows the rules from our previous posts—every verb has an appropriate subject performing it (“Her back” for “was” and “her fingernails” for “digging” and “leaving”) and the actions are simultaneous. It’s not a bad sentence by any means, but it could still be a little bit better.
A sentence with this sort of format—subject #1 performs an action while subject #2 performs a simultaneous action with an “ing” verb—carries with it a certain implication. That implication is that subject #2 (and subjects #3, #4, and so on, if there are any more) are somehow part of subject #1. Think of it as a wiki page with several subpages—the subpages are part of the topic introduced by the primary page, adding pertinent information to it. That’s why they’re attached to it. Similarly, subjects #2 and #3 are part of the same sentence as subject #1 because they add more detailed information to the topic introduced by the primary subject. Otherwise, they should just have their own sentence.
In our example sentence, “her back” is subject #1. Subject #2 is “her fingernails.” Although these are both part of the same whole, the whole itself is never mentioned in the sentence. “Her fingernails” are not a part of “her back”—not if she’s human, at least! Subject #2 isn’t adding detail to the action of subject #1, it is adding separate information. The sentence could be fixed in two different ways:
Tia sat with her back as straight as a rod, her fingernails digging into the steering wheel and leaving imprints in the faux leather.
Or . . .
Her back was still as straight as a rod. Her fingernails dug into the steering wheel, leaving imprints in the faux leather.
In the first fixed example, we make the character the primary subject of the sentence instead of her back. Since “her fingernails” are a part of the character, the sentence flows properly. In the second fixed example, we simply take all the information about “her fingernails” and make it a sentence on its own, removing the implication that it is somehow an added detail to the first portion.
Here’s another common use of this format:
They hurried to prepare the apartment, Jalila shoving discarded clothing and junk out of sight and Naima vacuuming the matted carpet.
In this case, the primary subject is “They.” Since Jalila and Naima are both part of “They,” the sentence flows correctly. Now, that’s not to say that this is the best format to use in this case—but if you do use it, make sure that it follows the proper logic. “A whole performs an action, with individual parts of the whole performing specific actions x and y.”