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.