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Handling Gerunds and Their Relatives
by Dawn Copeman

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Janis wrote to the newsletter with a question regarding the use of gerunds. Here's her question:
"Here is a question that has been bugging me:

"Most books on fiction writing (even ones by editors) say to never begin a sentence with a gerund (an -ing word). However, in sections where there is no dialogue, and there is only one character whose actions need to be described, it is very boring to start out a sentence with 'He' every time. Now, admittedly, you can rework a sentence so it starts with another word. But, in some cases, you can't. Sometimes beginning a sentence with a gerund is the only way you can break up the repetition of using 'he' in a paragraph.

"Here are some examples:

"He pulled the truck over onto the shoulder, opened the door, and slid out of his seat. Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.

"If I had used 'He' in the second sentence, instead of 'Hurrying,' there would have been too many 'he's'.

"Here are some more:

"He took his time ambling toward the truck, and then climbed in. Pressing the starter button, he backed out and headed down the street at a purposeful, slow speed. When he reached the end, he heaved a sigh of relief, sped up and whizzed down the washboard road.

"He drove around to the front, and pulled up to the gate. Grabbing his ID papers off the seat, he thrust them through the open window.

"He retraced his route around the rear of the prison, drove through the cemeteries, and reached the outskirts of Richmond. Gunning the engine, he raced toward the hills."

So, what do you think? Are gerunds completely out when it comes to starting sentences? How do you get around the problem?

But is Janis really talking about gerunds at all? As someone who only came across gerunds when studying for A-level German, I wasn't that sure. Luckily for us all, some of you out there do know what she's talking about -- people like Alaina Smith, for example. Alaina wrote: "It's important to clarify that a gerund is not just an 'ing' word, it is an 'ing' word that is functioning as a noun instead of a verb. For example:

"'I am reading this book' - reading is a verb

"'Reading is the most important subject to learn' - reading is a noun

"In Janis's examples, she's using 'ing' words as verbs, not nouns, so she shouldn't have to worry about using her chosen verbs."

But apparently, this isn't the full explanation, as Barbara Davies points out. "What you're actually referring to is a 'participial phrase'. IMO participial phrases at the start of sentences are fine as long as you don't overuse them to the point where they become irritating and you use them correctly.

"Take, for example: 'Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.'

"The sentence construction means that these two actions (hurrying and spreading) are happening at the same time ... which would be physically impossible. :)

"It would be better to say: 'After hurrying around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.'

"Or 'Having hurried around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.'

"Or 'He hurried around to the front of the truck and spread the map out on top of the hood.'"

Barbara Florio Graham also made clear the difference between a gerund and a participial phrase:

"Participles are used as adjectives, and they can end with either 'ing' or 'ed'." Examples:

"A gerund used as the subject of a sentence: 'Running became his passion.' Running is a noun, used the same way as any other noun, e.g., 'Dogs became his passion.'

"A present participle used as an adjective. Note that it modifies the subject of the sentence: "Running from the boys, she ducked into a doorway." (Barbara notes that she explains many fine points of grammar in her book, Five Fast Steps to Better Writing, at http://www.simonteakettle.com/wrbook.htm)

Okay, so when we say gerunds, we really mean participial phrases. Now we've got that clear, let's see what everyone else has to say on the matter.

Most of you, it seems, are of the opinion that the occasional use of a participial phrase is not a problem. Scotti Cohn writes: "I suppose you might encounter an editor who absolutely refuses to allow a gerund or participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence, but in my opinion, it's okay to do that to avoid repeating the personal pronoun. When doing so, it's important to pay attention so that you don't describe two actions taking place simultaneously when that isn't possible.

"For example, 'Taking the key out of his pocket, he opened the door,' suggests that he took the key out of his pocket and opened the door at the same time, which is not possible. They are two separate actions."

Stuart Aken is of a similar opinion: "Like so many 'rules' of writing, it is clearly spurious. Gerunds have been used as starters almost since the beginning of literature. There's no logical reason for this bar; it simply makes writing stilted and, in common with most such rules, makes no sense. Continuing the theme, I shall be writing such sentences when the structure and pace of the work require them."

Sheldon Goldfarb's response made me smile. "Worrying about gerunds, I raced to my keyboard...

"What an odd rule, forbidding gerunds at the beginning of sentences, and I've read lots of odd rules in Fowler, Strunk and White, etc. etc.

"I'm not surprised though that editors have come up with it; that's their job: to come up with rules to hamstring writers. When I published my novel, I had to struggle with the editors to get what I wanted to write published. You have to be strong with these people; that's the solution."

Jac Dowling also sees the lack of acceptance of gerunds by editors as an editorial problem. Jac wrote: "It seems that editors are becoming ever more pragmatic in their use of red and blue pencils! In my opinion, and I have opened with gerunds on several occasions, if the usage suits the mood and style -- go for it."

Vivian Ungar believes that participial phrases have their place in writing, but must be used sparingly. Vivian wrote: "When is it OK to begin a sentence with a gerund? When the sentence makes logical sense. Such a construction implies two events taking place simultaneously.

"Janis's example sentence is: 'Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.' This doesn't make a lot of sense, as the character would not be able to spread out the map on the hood while he was still hurrying. He would have to stop first, then spread out the map.

"On the other hand, one could write: 'Slipping on her new dress, she savored the feel of silk against her skin.' Not the greatest writing in the world, perhaps, but it makes sense. The putting on of the dress and the feeling of silk against skin occur simultaneously.

"While I don't think it's necessary to ban such sentences completely, a writer should regard them with suspicion and weed out as many as possible (just like adjectives). In Janis's case, a better solution might be not to describe every action her character makes. Experienced writers leave out certain details, knowing that the reader is capable of filling in the blanks.

"So the original paragraph: 'He pulled the truck over onto the shoulder, opened the door, and slid out of his seat. Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.' could be rewritten this way: 'He pulled over onto the shoulder, got out of the truck, and spread the map out on top of the hood.'

"The reader is aware that the character must open the door before getting out of the truck. There's no need to tell him so. My knowledge on this subject comes from John Gardner's excellent book, The Art of Fiction. He refers to such sentences as 'infinite-verb phrases.'"

Others amongst you, however, feel that gerunds or participial phrases or infinite-verb phrases should be avoided at all costs. Elisa wrote: "I believe that beginning sentences with gerunds is not technically incorrect, but we were always taught in school that it was a no-no because it was often done wrong. When you start with a gerund, you run the risk of writing an incomplete sentence. In addition, you also have to be careful that you choose an appropriate action pair. For example, in the example you used:

"'He pulled the truck over onto the shoulder, opened the door, and slid out of his seat. Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.' One might argue that you cannot hurry around to the front of the truck at the same time as spreading the map out on the top of the hood. This would be better constructed if instead of spreading the map out on the top of the hood, he unfolded the map.

"'He pulled the truck over onto the shoulder, opened the door, and slid out of his seat. Skidding around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood.' [Editor's grumpy note: Sorry, Elisa, but you can't open the map while skidding any more than you can while hurrying...]

"Hopefully this illustrates the need to pair the gerund with the intended actions and the risk our teachers did not want us taking as students."

Logan Judd is even more forthright in his views on gerunds. Logan writes: "It is true that gerunds should be avoided. The reason why is because they often do not make practical sense. To use one of the sentences from the article as an example, 'Hurrying around to the front of the truck, he spread the map out on top of the hood,' this sentence appears to be stating that he is hurrying around to the front of the truck and spreading the map on top of the hood at the same time.

"This is not to say that a gerund is a mortal sin. Whenever I come across some 'never ever do' advice from a 'how-to-write' book, I immediately pull a book off the shelves from some such-and-such author and find tons of examples blatantly contradicting that advice (for examples of gerunds aplenty, read The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan).

"I admit that I'm not a grammar whiz (I honestly did not know it was called a 'gerund' until I read this article, even though I knew beforehand that it was a poor technique); however, I believe that most, if not all gerunds, can be revised while still stating essentially the same thing." Logan goes on to revise several of the sentences to illustrate this, but for the sake of space I'm only publishing one of them here. "'He drove around to the front, and pulled up to the gate. Grabbing his ID papers off the seat, he thrust them through the open window.' Here is my revision: 'He drove around to the front and pulled up to the gate, then grabbed his ID papers off the seat and thrust them through the open window.'

In his revision, "the first and second sentence were combined using the conjunction 'then'. I changed "grabbing" to "grabbed," making this one smooth flow of action without gerunds or excessive 'he's.'

"The common theme here appears to be that gerunds can be solved by throwing in a conjunction and combining the sentence before the gerund with the gerund sentence to make one sentence. If this cannot be done, it may be best to consider changing the flow of events so that a gerund will no longer feel necessary."

Finally, Moira Allen weighed in with her advice on this tricky matter. She wrote: "First of all, as Barbara Florio Graham points out, these are not 'gerunds.' They are present participles, and specifically, the issue is about starting a sentence with a 'present participial phrase.'

"I haven't actually seen stern warnings about this, but then, I don't browse grammar books that often, unless they are somehow include vampires or pandas. So I think a better question to ask would be, 'what do you see in the books you read?' It seems to me that a participial phrase is a pretty common way to open a sentence.

"That being said, it also has a huge potential for misuse. The most common misuse of the opening participle is to lead with a participle that is not actually attached to the subject of the sentence. I see this problem quite often. For example:

"'Backing into the garage, my cat raced behind my car.'

In this case, the cat is not actually backing into the garage; I am. This incorrect association between the participle and the object of a sentence rather than its subject is one of the most common mistakes of the amateur writer. A correct way to express this would be:

"'Backing into the garage, I nearly ran over my cat.'

"Or, to make it a bit more grammatically correct...

"'As I was backing into the garage, I nearly ran over my cat.'

"And there's the key to using participles correctly: Remembering that the word 'as' (or 'while') is almost always implied whenever you use one. You can write the sentence above without the 'as,' but the 'as' is still implied. And that leads to the second problem with participles: Using them as an alternative to 'He did this, then he did that,' and so forth.

"'Walking into the room, he flung his coat on the chair and grabbed the phone.'

"Probably he didn't actually do all these things while he was walking into the room. If you couldn't put a 'while' or an 'as' into the sentence without changing the meaning, then a participle is probably not a good choice.

"Here's another example:

"'Glaring at the inadequate wardrobe, Sarah wondered where she was going to put her clothes.'

"This is certainly possible: Sarah could be wondering this while glaring at the wardrobe. However...

"'Glaring at the wardrobe, Sarah quickly unpacked her suitcases.'

"Hard to do. What the writer really means here is something more like:

"'Sarah glared at the inadequate wardrobe, then set about unpacking her suitcases.'

"In short, a present participle usually implies an action that is occurring at the same time as the next action in the sentence. If the actions can't occur simultaneously, it's usually a good idea to find another way to express the sequence of events. Participial phrases are fine if used correctly, but all too often are used as a sloppy short-cut, and as such, such be avoided."

So that's that sorted then. Whew!

Find Out More...

Avoiding Comma Confusion, by Moira Allen

Connect with Conjunctions - Victoria Grossack

My Sister, Eileen... or My Sister Eileen? Understanding the Apposite Phrase, by Moira Allen

The Oxford Comma (an infographic)

Punctuating Dialogue, by Marg Gilks

Copyright © 2010 by Dawn Copeman

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).


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