Monday, March 30, 2015

Minding Your "ings": Sentence Fragments

I recently went over sentence fragments—what they are and why they are a problem. As I was reading a manuscript this weekend, however, I suddenly realize that I neglected to mention the type of sentence fragment that is probably the most common: the “-ing”-verb sentence fragment.

Now, the -ing verb (or present participle) is a subject that I’ve covered a few times before. It’s a form of verb that is usually used to indicate that one action is being performed simultaneously to another action. For example:

     Gasping for breath, Amy slowed to a stop.

The above sentence indicates that two actions are occurring at the same time—Amy was gasping while she slowed to a stop.

Note that only one of the verbs in that sentence (gasping) is an -ing verb. The second verb (slowed) is a simple past-tense verb paired with the subject of the sentence, Amy. That’s because an -ing verb cannot serve as the primary verb of a sentence.

Remember: the most common use of the -ing verb is to indicate simultaneous actions—it can’t be used without another verb in the sentence that is conjugated to pair up with a subject, as in our example above. When writers attempt to use an -ing verb as the primary verb of the sentence, they end up with sentence fragments like this:

     Driving to the store.

This example has no subject! Who is driving to the store?

Pictured: The scene created by the sentence fragment "Driving to the store."

     His head pounding.

This example has a noun that could function as a subject, if it weren’t paired with an -ing verb.

     Gasping for breath, her lungs burning and her legs aching.

Again, this example has nouns (lungs and legs), but it has no verbs that aren’t in -ing format, so it is still a sentence fragment.

Now, you might look through your manuscript and find a sentence like this:

     Amy was running in the park.

That sentence doesn’t follow the same format as our good example above, does it? But it’s an -ing verb, and it’s grammatically sound. But note that there is a second verb in that sentence, one that is conjugated to work properly with the subject: was. That’s why this sentence works where the others didn’t.

(You might also note that there is no simultaneous action in that sentence. Take a moment, though, to think about how that sentence would be used. It would probably be part of an introduction to a scene, don’t you think? “Amy was running in the park. A dog approached her with a human hand in its mouth.” The simultaneous action is still there—it will just be in a different sentence.)

As I said before, this is probably the most common type of sentence fragment that I run across in manuscripts. So keep an eye on any sentences you have that feature an -ing verb, and make sure that they also have a proper subject and verb. Even then, though, there’s a lot of ways that -ing verbs can go wrong. To make sure everything is in order, go back through the rest of the “Minding Your ‘-ings’” series to make sure that your -ings are all square: here’s the links to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

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