Sentences that begin with present participles (-ing ending verbs) are, as some of you know, one of my pet hates in writing. (Head hopping is the other one.) In my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, I recommend that authors use such a sentence construction no more than once every 10,000 words. One of the reasons why is because authors rarely use it correctly and often overuse it, at least in self-published books (unfortunately). Used badly and too often, it’s a mark of an unskilled writer and a lack of line editing—or a lack of education in the editor.
So why am I talking about using it at all?
Because when used occasionally and skilfully, it varies the sentence structure. Being too rigid in not using it at all limits your options. Sometimes it’s just right, but only if you don’t use it often.
So let’s learn to use it well.
The worst example of a sentence starting with a participle phrase (a group of words, containing a participle, that modifies a sentence’s subject) is when it’s a dangling participle. A participle phrase ‘dangles’ when the modifier (the participle) is out of place or too far away from its subject. As a result, the meaning is obscure.
Here’s an example:
Maria drove home with her new kitten, singing along to the radio.
The author probably intended to communicate that Maria was singing, but what she has written says that the kitten is singing, because the participle phrase (singing along with the radio) modifies the kitten, not Maria. What they should have written (assuming it’s Maria and not the kitten singing) is …
Maria, singing along to the radio, drove home with her new kitten.
Alternatively, if you rarely begin a sentence with a present participle like this, then you could write…
Singing along to the radio, Maria drove home with her new kitten.
Both are grammatically correct because the participle (the verb ending in -ing) is correctly associated with the noun it modifies (relates to). The phrase is next to the subject of the sentence.
Here’s another example of a dangling participle:
Enjoying the view from the balcony, the birds sang me a sweet morning song.
Who is enjoying the view from the balcony here? The birds or me? See the lack of clarity this mistake causes.
I suspect this is what the author means here:
Enjoying the view from the balcony, I listened to the birds’ sweet morning song.
To avoid a dangling participle at the start of a sentence, always remember that the subject of the action expressed by the participle should come directly after the comma.
How to use present participles correctly at the beginning of a sentence.
Present participles are verbs that describe a continuous action (dreaming, eating, walking, frying, typing etc.) so you shouldn’t use them to describe actions that occur one after the other, that can’t be done at the same time. For example:
Running out the door, I jumped into the car.
The participle (running) is related to the subject (I), so it’s not a dangling participle, not grammatically incorrect, but the sentence is clumsy and jarring because the present participle is used to describe what in this example is a non-continuous action. These actions are single actions that occur one after the other. First you run, then you get in the car. You can’t be running out the door at the same time as you jump in a car.
A sentence that better expresses these actions, which occur one after the other, not at the same time, would be…
I ran out the door and jumped in the car.
Unfortunately, this is another extremely common mistake when using this kind of sentence construction, and another reason to use it extremely rarely.
Remember that for a sentence starting with a participle phrase to work, the two actions (verbs) in the sentence must be able to be done at the same time.
The kinds of continuous actions that you can do along with other actions are things such as thinking, wondering, feeling. An example of a sentence starting with a present participle that does work is…
Feeling lonely, I rang Susan and asked if she wanted to go to the pub with me.
Believing that I have covered my topic sufficiently, I shall now go into the garden and enjoy the sunshine.
More on participles: https://www.capstoneediting.com.au/blog/how-to-avoid-the-dangling-participle
Thanks to PDPics, photosforyou, Pexels and DJ_Moertel from Pixabay for the images.
Claudine Bailey says
This is timely. Thank you.
Tahlia Newland says
Thanks for your comment. I’ve made a bit of noise about overusing this construction, so I thought I’d better acknowledge that it has it’s uses so long as it’s used correctly.
sandee M says
I have learned a lot reading your emails, and I read your book on Prose.
I’m writing a memoir so it’s challenging to NOT begin most sentences with -I-. But I’m in my tenth (or so) edit of my manuscript—you have helped me to be a better writer. Now I catch and study when writers us (ing) on the first word.
Any simple suggestions how to begin sentences without using—I?
Tahlia Newland says
Thanks for your comment. It’s always nice to know that I’ve helped someone. As for not using ‘I’, try describing what happened, rather than what you did. Describing your surroundings and what other people are doing, at least breaks up the ‘I’.
You can always send me a few chapters for me to give specific you feedback on.