Red pens and primers...not

Hello, Miss Snark---

Several members of my writing group have been debating the merits of gerunds. (good dog...you do that for fun??)

Examples include the following

"You startled me," he said, regaining his balance.
Erin admired the curve of his jeans, taking in the worn fabric. (um...it's not the gerund that's the problemo here)
Pausing at the intersection, Ned realized he was lost.

Some are under the impression that this is an acceptable way to describe something. Others think that is a weak method.

What is your opinion? Or Killer Yap's?

Killer Yapp is of the opinion that the only phrases worth writing are: "Walk time!" "Do you want a cookie" and "Squirrel!". He does contribute to the editorial pages of the Times, but perhaps not in the way ol' Mr. Sulzberger had in mind.

I had to look up "gerund" cause I can never remember this stuff. Gerund: a form that is derived from a verb but functions as a noun, ending in -ing: ie 'do you mind my asking you'.

I don't read your work with a red pen and a grammar primer at my side. You can gerrymander your verbs and dangle your participles while nounging around in your adverbial form if you want; I do NOT care. You can even (gasp!) have fragments. Yes indeedy! And slang!

What I care about is that the writing zips along, the story is well told and you have control of what you are doing. If you use gerunds, or dangling participles or fragments or whatever, it's cause you did it on purpose, not cause you don't know any better. And yes, I can tell the difference. So, when you take in jeans, understand that "taking in" means a lot of things and not just sucking up the view with your eyeballs.


Anonymous said...

Those aren't gerunds! They are participial phrases. Gerunds are those things that occur in moving titles a lot, like "Boxing Helena" (god help me, that's the first one that came to mind.)

My writer/editor point of view on participial phrases is that writers need to make sure that the action in the phrase and the main clause are actually occuring simultaneously. To write, "Opening the door, she stumbled her way through the unlit room" wouldn't work because she opens the door, then walks through the room.


Edie said...

My dog doesn't know gerunds or the word *squirrel* -- although she'd recognize the animal. Her favorite word is *treat*.

lizzie26 said...

Like agents are really, really, going to mark up a ms. because of dangling participles or infinitives that read better when split.

Yeah, watch your spelling and basic grammar, but ultimately--write a great story.

jta said...

Gerund: Swimming is a worthy sport.

Participle: You are swimming.

The forms themselves are neither weak nor strong. Good writers make their participles sing; bad writers use strong verbs to no effect. Funny, aint it?

Anonymous said...

Gotta watch all those ing things; they get old damn fast. Besides all that ring-a-ding makes your head ache. There's always tons of ings in the *new* writer's stuff.

Rei said...

I've heard this called "Ing Disease"; I used to call it progressivitis ;) I had a case for a while; a friend got me to see a doctor.

Thankfully, it was relatively easy to cure. I just had to realize that I had it so that I could take the vaccination. Then I was able to address the existing symptoms with numerous doses of the pill "SearchForING+Space"

BuffySquirrel said...

Did someone say Squirrel?

kaytie said...

I'm liking this thread. I'll have to check my manuscripts for Ing Disease--I'd like to know more, anonymous #2. When is it bad, when is it good? Everything in moderation, right?

I'm especially liking the neologism, "nounging."

My dog's favorite word is "breakfast." She prefers it to "dinner" and "cocktails." She's a silly dog.

Another moving title: "Chasing Amy."

Anonymous said...

Ya know.
Gerund, participle, whatever.
They are all fine, until you can't help noticing them.
Sometimes, reading, you notice that your Beloved Author is using the same damn verbal pattern all the time.
Then it's like being pelted with food when you're trying to eat.
The surface of the writing gets in the way of the story, and suddenly you're dealing with Annoying Author Doing It Again.
(I had to stop reading one author because she always hooked everything together with semicolons; she never made any logical connections between things; her paragraphs went on forever; I was reading it aloud to my kid; I had to stop because we were just mocking it too much; this was a much-praised YA author too.)
So sure, do it, when it fits, but don't get too enamored of any one strategy

Anonymous said...

Mmm, I love gerunds. I'll never get published at this rate. ;)

RB said...

Thank you Miss Snark for confirming that it boils down to the writing, not your technical expertise of it! I don't know a gerund from a mixed metaphor, and I've heard the term split infinitive, but, like, who cares? If a writing group is worried about the specific techniques as opposed to the writing, then they are focusing on the wrong aspects of the book. I suggest that they close their eyes, listen to it being read, and determine if it makes them want to know what happens next, or if it puts them to sleep. If the latter, it ain't the gerunds that makes the writing weak. It would be the writing.

Elektra said...

That's why JK Rowling's writing has started to drive me crazy--every single dialogue tag has either a participle or an adverb attached.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me but Boxing Helena and Chasing Amy are not examples of gerunds either. Both of those are used as verbs. Only jta won the gold star in this one!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Bill E. Goat: "grammar? You mean writing actually has rules?"

ME: Well, Bill, this made it into print: "You’re so right," Tom admitted ruefully. "I figure that the outside temperature of the space station may run close to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Which means we'll need a terrific cooling system for the setup."*

Bill E: So, grammar only counts if you know how it works?

ME: Can you rephrase that, Bill?

*Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space, 1955.

Anonymous said...

If Willy the Wonked writer doesn't have technique, aka craft, even his best story will sink.

Sorry, RB, but the writing group--if she be hale and hearty--*should* yap about the ing thing and any other hole in the boat they spot. That's their purpose--if a writing group actually has a purpose.

ScaramoucheX said...

This answer of yours has cheered me considerably,Snark - I feel there is hope for me, yet...

Anonymous said...

I don't care whether the first anonymous is right or not. Those examples sound unnatural and contrived. Sometimes, they're acceptable, but people tend to overuse -ing verbs (affectionately called -ing disease on the Turkey City Lexicon).

Use sparingly!

Anonymous said...

I'd recommend that people just talk about "-ing forms" when they can't remember what's a gerund and what's a participle (or what's an adverbial use of the participle and what's a use as part of the progressive form :-)). Hey, there's nothing wrong with not remembering all the grammar terms, but if you get them wrong, you make yourself the perfect target for us compulsive grammar nitpickers. ;-)

Extra nitpick for free!: Present participles are for simultaneous actions; there are also past participles, which can be used for sequential actions (as well as for constructing passive sentences, pefect tenses, and other fun stuff): The comment posted, she went to the kitchen to eat an apple.

Janny said...

As a writer who wears an editorial hat regularly as well (brings to mind a pile of hats in the corner of my office, any one of which I select depending on the manuscript and my mood), I find one of the few things that never fails to set the editorial bicuspids on edge is the seemingly constant misuse of the "ing" phrase. Such as:

Rising over the valley, she was in awe of the mountains.


Struggling for breath, her heart broke.

Now when I see a character rising over a valley, of course, I amend my red pen marks. Ditto for when I actually see a physical heart both breaking and struggling for breath at the same time (that is not a pretty picture). But I see so much of this--and so much of it ends up unintentionally comical--that I'm thinking very few English teachers teach the modifying-phrase idea anymore. And it becomes the curse of one who reads too much, as it were...it stops me dead in the narrative every single time.

...which is not what you want to do for a reader.

Yes, I agree, good storytelling trumps all. But here's the "secret handshake": using the language properly is part of good storytelling. It's one of those oxymorons: if the language is used correctly, it's invisible. If it's visible in some way, the storytelling is weaker for that. Not irreparably weaker, and not fatally weaker in most cases...but just enough that I will take out my red pen and say, "Fix this."


Anonymous said...

Recently I was confused after reading a Frank McCourt memoir and wondering why he could get away with breaking all those “writing rules”. Miss Snark put my mind at ease with a pithy, satisfactory answer even though I got my prostate mixed up with my prostrate (inside joke). ;~) The thing I hate most about writing is the "rules". Writing is an ART (at least creative writing is) and there should be no (or at least fewer) rules for writing as an ART. If you approach writing as a science, my guess is that non-fiction (except memoir, obvioously) is your bag. As many have said, if you write well (that is a good read), the rest will take care of itself. -JTC

-ril said...

Writing is an art, but you have to know the rules and have a certain level of mastery over them before you have license to break them. You break the rules because you have something to say by breaking them, not just because you know no better.

Just as Picasso had to pay his dues and demonstrate that he knew how to represent the human form in correctness of proportion and hue before he was 'licensed' to stick someone's blue nose in their burgundy ear, so we should know where a preposition should go before we can make a point by mis-placing it.

And the best way to learn the rules is not to study the Dictionary of Usage, but to read, read, read and to write, write, write until they are not rules but are nature to us.

It's art once we have mastery of our craft.


Anonymous said...

Spelling -anuther stoopid rool! -JTC

Anonymous said...

-ril said:
It's art once we have mastery of our craft.

-I say:
Hear ye, hear ye . . .

I hate grammar, absolutely everything to do with grammar, but I love a solid construct. As a writer this paradox bedevils and intrigues me.

Good thread, thank you for the forum, Miss Snark.

Anonymous said...

-ril's a genius. A lifelong reader who writes by instinct doesn't need to get bogged down in ing-ectomies.

I heart -ril.

Bernita said...

"The stockings were hung by the chimney with care..."

Anonymous said...

Very well put Ril !!!

Adrian said...

_Self-Editing for Fiction Writers_ (Brown and King) has a good discussion of these. The suggestions boil down to:

1. Don't overuse this construction.

2. Consider putting the participle clause somewhere other than the beginning of the sentence.

3. Only use a participle phrase if the two actions are simultaneous.

4. Make sure both actions use the same subject.

5. Don't put the important action in the participle phrase.

magz said...

I'm grinnin MS, for I write exactly the way I speak. A good story need only ring true as you read, and the ONLY truth I really know is a genuine voice.
I think reading anything out loud is probably the best test of whether it rings true or not; you can lie to yer friends (or readers) and I'll lie to mine, but NEVER condescend unless it's a deliberate parody, hehe.

Oh, and the Rott(on) Sisters have two favorite words;
Whatchout: (run jump n play mode)
and Hooseer? (run to the gate and swarm-greet unway guest mode)

Anonymous said...

Well put, ril. A savvy reader always knows the difference between misuse of language due to ignorance, and breaking a rule for creative effect. The first is intensely annoying, and after encountering several of these I, for one, put down the book. Reading it becomes torture.

Ignorance of the correct use of language is NOT art.

And jta, thank you for pointing out that the examples given were not gerunds. I read the post and said: WHA??? Then I hastened to the comments in indignation, but you got there first.

A. J. Luxton said...

Yow. It's impossible to tell whether Erin is ogling or sewing! I agree with the posters who said bad subject attribution is even worse. It's often a hilarious error, as with several of the bad Asimov's-slush-pile quotes in the list that gave rise to Rabbitania.

Anonymous said...

"You startled me," he said, regaining his balance.

Yuck. Separate the dialogue from the action. Both deserve their own sentence.

Lyvvie said...

You have no idea how happy you've made me with this revelation!

I am forever re-editing while writing for fear that I come across as uneducated. I imagine the disappointed head shake of Mrs. Poole, my high school English teacher. But then, she wasn't an agent, so I can chill just a bit.

A little bit anyways.

Anonymous said...

I'm with ya' magz.