The difference between a present participle and a gerund and also a participle adjective isn’t immediately obvious and may seem unimportant, but when looking at sophistication in writing, it’s helpful to know the difference.
I’ve been making a bit of noise recently about the illadvised use of present participles to start sentences if we want our writing to look professional. See point one of my recent blog post and this video with 6 (+1) tips on writing better prose. However not every sentence starting with a word ending in ‘ing’ is problematic because not all words ending in ‘ing’ are present participles, some are gerunds and some, though they are still called participles, are participle adjectives not verbs.
What’s the difference?
Both a gerund and a present participle come from a verb, and both end in ‘ing’. However, each has a different function. A gerund acts like a noun while a present participle acts as a verb.
A word ending in ‘ing’ can also act as an adjective, in which case it’s called a participle adjective.
When is a word ending in ‘ing’ an issue at the start of a sentence?
It’s only when a word ending in ‘ing’ is used as a verb (present participle), not a noun (gerund) or an adjective, that starting a sentence with it is weak and clumsy.
A gerund (noun ending in ‘ing’) at the beginning of a sentence is fine. For example, ‘Swimming is a great sport.’ In this case the word ‘swimming’ is acting as a noun. In the following sentence, ‘dancing’ is also a gerund because it’s a noun, not a verb. It’s referring to a thing called dancing. ‘Dancing is George’s favourite pastime.’
In the sentence ‘Swimming dogs filled the pool’, the same ing-ending form acts as an adjective modifying the noun ‘dogs’ and so it’s also not a problematic beginning to a sentence. Another example of a participle used as an adjective (a participle adjective) is ‘Dancing rabbits in top hats took to the stage’.
In contrast, if you said, ‘Dancing across the stage, the rabbits in top hats made a wonderful sight,’ you’re using the present participle ‘dancing’ as a verb, and that’s where the issue is. Same as with ‘Swimming through the water, she thought of ways to get back at him.’ Here ‘swimming’ is also acting as a verb, so it’s a present participle, not a gerund and not a participle adjective, and this is the problematic construction.
So when you look at all those sentences you’ve written starting with ‘ing’ ending words, they may not all be problematic.
Image by Martine Ronsse from Pixabay
Tapping, the keyboard sang under his flying fingers as he expressed his littaey disagreement, his words dancing upon the flickering screen.
Is it awkward. Maybe. Who cares. Break the rules. Words are art.
Laughing, his self expression his only joy, the writer, completing his response, sent the email.
Tahlia Newland says
So you don’t care that your participle dangles such that you’re not even saying what you think you’re saying here? In this sentence the keyboard is tapping, not his flying fingers. Not only is this sentence awkward, it doesn’t even make sense, because it’s grammatically incorrect, and the purpose of correct grammar is to make sure that the writer is saying what he or she intends to say.
As for who cares? Those who value true art. Just as a painting from the brush of one who does not understand the elements that make good art is a mess, not art, so are words weilded without skill.
Your comment proves my point very well. If you must use this construction – and really now that you know better, why hold onto it? – at least make sure it’s grammatically correct.
Millicent Hughes says
I thought I had a fine education in English when I turned in my first major paper for my MA degree. A shock of reality came when the department head said that no one doubted my subject scholarship, but my use of English was ungrammatical. My paper was turned back.
I was assigned a Hungarian tutor to correct my English! The tutor corrected my numerous constructions of the above type (and others…. many others….).
Tahlia Newland says
It’s always good to hear that there are tutors and editors who are aware of the issues around this construction. Thanks for sharing. This kind of thing isn’t what we’re taught in high school.
Catherine Byrne says
Realising that she was the one who was supposed to reply, Annie swallowed and forced the words out.
Is there something wrong with this?
Tahlia Newland says
Nothing wrong with it, no. In fact it’s an excellent example of the construction used well. If, however, you use that construction more than about once in roughly 10000 words, it will give your prose a clunky, samey feel.