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  • Richard Crum


Blog No. 07292020

Participle (Infinite Verb) Phrases

What is clumsy about the following sentence: Looking up from his book, Joe said, "There goes the cat."

ANSWER: Clumsy use of the present participle phrase looking up from his book.

Looking up and Joe said state two separate actions illogically happening at the same time. Clear writing is sequential, like life. We look up, then a millisecond later we utter there goes the cat. An easy fix of the flaw is to use a compound predicate: Joe looked up and said, "There goes the cat."

A participle is a verb form most commonly ending in ---ing or ---ed. For example: jumping and jumped. The participle verb form is called infinite because its time reference is open ended. For example: When did Joe jump? Immediately? A day later? A month later? A participle phrase is void of specific time. Hence, foggy writing.

Because a participle phrase is void of time, its action can be misconstrued to occur at the same time as the action expressed by the sentence's main verb. Hence: Jumping from the train, Joe ran after the killer. Did Joe jump and run at the same time? No, because it is illogical to jump and run at the same time. Result: clumsy writing.

"Yes," some author might argue, "but the reader knows what I mean." How can a writer know what a reader knows unless the writer shows the reader what to know. To assume a reader can know the author's unwritten thought is a writer's excuse for being too lazy to take the trouble to spell out (show) the image the writer wants the reader to see.

No writer worth his or her salt puts control of the storytelling in the assuming hands of the reader. Why? Because the number of assumptions is directly proportionate to the unlimited imagination of the readers. Any one of a reader's infinite number of assumptions can be far afield from the exact meaning intended by the author. Thus, by making a wrong assumption the reader goes down a path of skewed cause and effect. Soon the effects become improbable outcomes of the causes. The reader becomes confused, and the story bogs down. Feeling cheated, the reader vows never to read that author again.

Besides rejection, anger is often heaped on the author when he or she sets up the reader to make assumptions. For example: Jumping from the train, Joe ran after the killer. Here the reader is forced to interpret (assume) the author's meaning: Joe jumped and then ran. The author has just made the reader abandon the joy of reading and go to work as an interpreter (even if just for a scant millisecond). No reader wants to work; a reader wants to be entertained. But now the reader is doing work: work that should have been done by the author, namely painting clear pictures with words.

To add injury to insult, the reader has purchased the author's novel with hard-earned cash. Shockingly, the reader discovers what he or she really paid for was the privilege of doing (of all things) the author's job. Feeling swindled, the reader stops reading in ANGER! Along with the vow to never be cheated by that author again.

One easy way you can keep a reader happy: Make sure each participle word or phrase logically agrees in time with the main verb of the sentence to which it is attached. Hence: Hugging, the two sisters welcomed each other. Hugging and being welcomed can logically be read as actions occurring in the same moment. Whereas: Running to the car, Sue welcomed her sister leaves the door open to be read as two separate actions (running and being welcomed) illogically happening at the same time. A careful reader will pick up on this clumsy flaw and hold it against you in spades!

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